Arnold Schoenberg was a good painter

Arnold Schoenberg

Who was Arnold Schönberg?

Arnold Schönberg is known mainly as a musician and composer - less as a visual artist. With works such as "Verklierter Nacht" (1899), "Gurre-Lieder" (completed 1911) and the opera "Moses und Aron" (1923–1937), he decisively shaped the history of music. His theoretical work is also of the greatest importance, including for Wassily Kandinsky and the Blue Rider.

Arnold Schönberg's achievements are connected with the solution of the tonal order. In 1907/08 he set Stefan George's poem “Entrückung” (1907) to music as the soprano part in String Quartet II, Op. 10. In it he expressed the feeling of unlimited movement.

Schönberg, the painter

Arnold Schönberg considered the premiere of his “Second String Quartet” in 1908 to be the greatest scandal of his life. This musical event, the most momentous for his biography, disappointed him deeply and plunged him into an existential crisis which he tried to overcome through acts of self-assurance and which led him in new directions. He started giving interviews, writing articles, drawing and painting. Schönberg's first dated drawing is a self-portrait that he created five days after the concert.

Arnold Schönberg's pictorial work includes self-portraits, landscapes and painterly visions that deal with the look and sight of people. The Viennese art salon Heller exhibited Schönberg's portraits and studies, which he later called "glances". However, the autodidact was received with great skepticism by Viennese society. Wassily Kandinsky was the first to recognize the potential of the compositions he called “Visions” and praised Schönberg's achievements in this area:

“First of all, we immediately see that Schönberg paints, not in order to paint a 'beautiful', 'lovable' etc. picture, but that when he paints, he actually doesn't think about the picture itself. Foregoing the objective result, he only seeks to fix his subjective "sensation" and only needs the means that seem inevitable to him at the moment. [...] Infinitely few specialist painters have this happy strength, at times this heroism, this energy of renunciation, which leave all kinds of painterly diamonds and pearls lying around without paying attention to them or even throw them away when they press themselves into their hands. Schönberg goes straight ahead, towards his goal, or guided only towards the result necessary here. "1

Schönberg sought to implement his inner images and used free association for this. Schönberg was represented with works in the Munich exhibition “Der Blaue Reiter”.

Schönberg and Gerstl

Probably from the spring of 1906 Richard Gerstl also moved in the Schönberg circle and dealt with large-format portraits in post-impressionist or pointillist style as well as pastose painted landscapes (→ Richard Gerstl). The latter show the influence of Vincent van Gogh and Max Liebermann. According to the memories of Arnold Schönberg, it would have been his unsuccessful attempts at painting that would have brought Gerstl on the path of modern art:

“[...] it wasn't that radical because his ideal, his role model, was Liebermann at the time. In many conversations about art, music and all sorts of things, I've wasted as much thought on him as on anyone who just wanted to listen. Probably this strengthened him so much in his radicalism, which was still very tame at the time, that when he saw some rather unsuccessful attempts at painting that I made and showed him, he considered their pathetic appearance to be on purpose and exclaimed: 'Now I have from you learned how to paint. <[...] Immediately afterwards he began to paint> modern <. "2 (Arnold Schönberg, Picturesque Influences, 1938)

A woman soon stood between the two artists: Mathilde Schönberg, née von Zemlinsky and sister of Arnold Schönberg's teacher and friend Alexander von Zemlinsky. The couple married in 1901 and had two children (* 1902 Gertrud, * 1906 Georg). When exactly the friendship turned into a love affair cannot be proven. During his summer stay in 1908 on Lake Traunsee, Schönberg caught Richard Gerstl and Mathilde in flagrante delicto after his daughter Trudi had pointed out to him that the painter had kissed her mother. The mutual escape was followed by the separation and the return of Mathilde to her family. Richard Gerstl put an end to his life in November 1908. At the same time Schönberg experienced violent rejection of his pieces of music by Viennese society. With the important compositions "Three Piano Pieces" (op. 11) and "Five Orchestral Pieces" (op. 16) he moved outside of established forms in 1909, which he continued between 1910 and 1913 in the one-act opera "The Happy Hand".


  • Martin Eybl, birth of the Second Viennese School. The scandal concert of March 1913, in: Berg, Wittgenstein, Zuckerkandl. Central figures of Viennese modernism (exhibition cat. Literature Museum of the Austrian National Library, Vienna, March 22, 2018– February 17, 2019), Vienna 2018, pp. 53–67.
  • Christian Meyer (eds.), Strindberg, Schönberg, Munch. Nordic Modernism in Schönberg's Vienna around 1900 (exhibition cat. Arnold Schönberg Center, September 25, 2008– January 18, 2009), Vienna 2008.