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Richard Gerstl (September 14, 1883 ÔÇô November 4, 1908) was an Austrian painter and draughtsman known for his expressive psychologically insightful portraits, his lack of critical acclaim during his lifetime, and his affair with the wife of Arnold Schoenberg which led to his suicide.
Early in his life, Gerstl decided to become an artist, much to the dismay of his father. After performing poorly in school and being forced to leave the famed Piaristengymnasium in Vienna as a result of "disciplinary difficulties," his financially stable parents provided him with private tutors. In 1898, at the age of fifteen, Gerstl was accepted the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna where he studied under the notoriously opinionated and difficult Christian Griepenkerl. Gerstl began to reject the style of the Vienna Secession and what he felt was pretentious art. This eventually prompted his vocal professor to proclaim, "The way you paint, I piss in the snow!"
Frustrated with the lack of acceptance of his non-secessionist painting style, Gerstl continued to paint without any formal guidance for two years. For the summers of 1900 and 1901, Gerstl studied under the guidance of Simon Holl├│sy in Nagyb├ínya. Inspired by the more liberal leanings of Heinrich Lefler, Gerstl once again attempted formal education. Unfortunately, his refusal to participate in a procession in honor of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria further ostracized him and led to his departure. Gerstl felt that taking part in such an event was "unworthy of an artist." His final exit from Lefler's studio took place in 1908.
In 1904 and 1905, Gerstl shared a studio with his former academy classmate and friend, Viktor Hammer. Although Hammer had assisted in Gerstl's admittance to Lefler's tutelage and their relationship was friendly, it is difficult to determine how close the two gentlemen were as Gerstl did not associate himself with other artists. Regardless of their personal feelings, by 1906, Gerstl had acquired his own personal studio.
Although Gerstl did not associate with other artists, he did feel drawn to the musically inclined. He attempted to gain the favor of composer Gustav Mahler and began to develop ties to others with musical interests. In 1905, he began to associate himself with Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander von Zemlinsky. Gerstl and Schoenberg developed a mutual admiration based upon each individual's talents. Gerstl apparently instructed Schoenberg in art and became close enough to be invited to accompany Schoenberg and his associates on their summer visits to Gmunden in 1907 and 1908.
During this time, Gerstl also painted several portraits of Schoenberg, his family, and his friends. These portraits also included paintings of Schoenberg's wife Mathilde. Gerstl and Mathilde became extremely close and, in August 1908, she left her husband and children to travel to Vienna with Gerstl. Schoenberg was in the midst of composing his Second Quartet for Strings and after much persuasion and threats of suicide, Mathilde rejoined him in October.
Distraught by the loss of Mathilde, his isolation from his associates, and his lack of artistic acceptance, Gerstl entered his studio during the night of November 4, 1908 and apparently burned every letter and piece of paper he could find. Although many paintings survived the fire, it is believed that a great deal of his artwork as well as personal biographical papers and letters were destroyed during the evening. Other than his paintings, only eight drawings are known to have survived unscathed. After the cremation of the paper documentation regarding his life, Gerstl proceeded to hang himself in front of his studio mirror and further ensured his fatality by stabbing himself.
The incident had a significant impact on Arnold Schoenberg and his work Die Gl├╝ckliche Hand (The Lucky Hand) is said to be based on these events.
After his suicide at the age of twenty-five, his family took the surviving paintings out of Gerstl's studio and stored them in a warehouse until his brother Alois showed them to the art dealer Otto Kallir in 1930 or 1931. Although Gerstl had never managed to exhibit a show during his lifetime, Kallir organized an exhibition at his Neue Galerie. Shortly afterwards, the Nazi presence in Austria hindered the further acclaim of the artist and it was not until after the war that Gerstl was known in the United States. Sixty-six paintings and eight drawings attributed to Gerstl are known, although it is possible he destroyed many more or that others could have been lost over the years.
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