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Richard Gerstl, c. 1902

On September 14, 1883, Richard Gerstl was born in Vienna as the third son of Emil and Maria Gerstl, born Pfeiffer. The father originally comes from the Hungarian diocese Neutra and is of Jewish descent. As a business man, he has earned a considerable fortune, whereby the family can live in good-middle-class circumstances. The mother comes from Kaplice, today's Czech Republic, is a Christian and insists on the Roman Catholic baptism of her sons. After two years at the Vienna Piarist Gymnasium, Gerstl moved to the Meixner Private School. During the school year Gerstl receives drawing lessons from Otto Frey. In 1898, Gerstl spent two months teaching in Ladislaus Rohsdorf's drawing school "Aula" to prepare for the entrance examination at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.


At the age of 15, Gerstl began studying at the "Allgemeine Malerschule" at Christian Griepenkerl at the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna, where he befriended Victor Hammer. The relationship between Gerstl and Griepenkerl is characterized by tensions from the beginning. Griepenkerl's conservative teaching contradicts Gerstl's artistic conception, Gerstl leaves the academy and is looking for an artistic alternative. He finds this in the modern-oriented artist colony of the Hungarian painter Simon Hollósy in Nagybánya, where he spends the summer months from 1900 to 1901. In the turn of the century, the artists' colony is regarded as a popular meeting place for artists of different nationalities, where one is strongly concerned with impressionism and open-air painting.

Richard Gerstl, c. 1905

After repeated tensions with his teacher Griepenkerl, Gerstl left the Vienna Academy in July 1901. During this time, Gerstl lives retired and does not maintain contact with Viennese artists' circles. He devotes himself to philosophy and musicology, learns Italian and Spanish, and passionately reads the writings of Otto Weiniger and Sigmund Freud. In October 1904, Gerstl repeatedly entered the class of Griepenkerl, but had to finish his course after two semesters. In March 1906, Heinrich Lefler invited Gerstl to visit his "Special School for Painting" at the Academy. Lefler had previously seen Gerstl's picture "The Sisters Karoline and Pauline Frey". Gerstl agrees, on condition to get his own studio.


In the spring of 1906, Gerstl made his acquaintance with the composer Arnold Schönberg and his wife, Mathilde, to whom Gerstl gave private painting lessons. In the same year, Gerstl painted the representative portraits of Schönberg, his wife Mathilde, and his daughter Gertrud. Gerstl is accepted into the circle of Schönberg and gets to know Alban and Smaragda Berg, Anton von Webern, Egon Wellesz, Heinrich Jalowetz, Viktor Krüger, Ernst Diez and Alexander von Zemlinsky - Schönberg's brother-in-law. At the invitation of Schönberg, Gerstl spent the summer months of 1907 in Traunstein. At the same time, a secret relationship of love develops between Gerstl and Mathilde Schönberg.

The painter in his studio, c. 1907/08

In 1908 the relationship between Gerstl and his teacher Heinrich Lefler starts to deteriorate. Gerstl laments Lefler's participation in the Kaiserjubiläum and the planned exhibition of the Hagenbund. Likewise, exhibition participation in the "Ansorge-Verein" and in the Galerie Miethke fail, Gerstl has no interest to exhibit with Gustav Klimt. In July 1908, Gerstl traveled to Traunstein for a second time to the Schönberg family. On July 22, he wrote a letter of complaint to the Ministry of Culture and Education in which he complained about Lefler, who had not let him be exhibited at the school exhibition. At the end of August, Gerstl and Mathilde Schönberg were caught by their husband in flagranti. The couple fled to Vienna, but Mathilde returns to her family after a few days. Gerstl is exiled from the Schönberg Circle. On 4 November 1908 a concert of Schoenberg's pupils takes place in the Great Viennese Musikvereinssaal, where Gerstl is not invited. On the same evening, Gerstl commits suicide by hanging.


Richard Gerstl is regarded as a pioneer of Austrian expressionism. As an enfant terrible of the Viennese art scene of the turn of the century, Gerstl opposed contemporary trends such as art nouveau. He never exhibited in his lifetime. Although Gerstl was hardly noticed during his lifetime as an artist and regarded as a difficult personality, his small artistic body of work is now now considered a masterpiece of Austrian modernity. The artist's works are found in many collections, including the Belvedere in Vienna, the Leopold Museum in Vienna and the Wien Museum.