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Expressionist Portraits

Expressionist portraits reveal more than just what people look like.

Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat

Oskar Kokoschka
(Austrian, 1886–1980)

1909. Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 53 5/8" (76.5 x 136.2 cm)

In 1909 the Viennese art historians Hans and Erica Tietze asked 23-year-old Oskar Kokoschka to paint a marriage portrait for their mantelpiece. They were strong supporters of contemporary art in Vienna and together helped organize the Vienna Society for the Advancement of Contemporary Art. Mrs. Tietze recalled that she and her husband were painted individually, a fact suggested by their separate poses and gazes. Kokoschka used thin layers of color to create the hazy atmosphere surrounding the couple, and added a sense of crackling energy by scratching the paint with his fingernails.

Oskar Kokoschka, My Life, translated from the German by David Britt, New York, Macmillan, 1974, p. 36.

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.


Kokoschka’s interest in portraits arose, in part, from his fascination with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which “reduced too shockingly the distance between us and the related species of primates.” “The sense of familiarity and intimacy within mankind,” Kokoschka continued, “gave way to a feeling of alienation, as if we had never really known ourselves before. I myself was more affected by this than I would admit, which is why, to confront the problem, I started painting portraits.”<sup>1</sup>


Despite Kokoschka’s attempts to borrow it from the Tietzes for inclusion in exhibitions of his work, the painting was not shown publicly until after The Museum of Modern Art acquired it in 1939, just one year after the Tietzes immigrated to New York.