Rudolf Leopold was born in Vienna on March 1, 1925. Following WWII, he pursued a career in medicine at Vienna University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1953. In addition to his medical education, he began studying art history and collecting art in the early 1950s. While training to be an eye doctor, he discovered his passion for art. During his graduation, his mother gave him a VW Beetle. Instead, he bought his first Schiele (‘The Hermits’). He was one of just a few collectors who saw the artist’s extraordinary potential at that time.
He began by focusing on paintings by Egon Schiele, an artist, who had essentially faded into oblivion and was only known as a national artist sensation. Over several decades, Rudolf Leopold’s fascination with Egon Schiele led him to rediscover the artist and accumulate the world’s largest and most notable collection of Schiele’s paintings.
In the mid-1950s, he began actively collecting art with a particular early focus on pieces by Egon Schiele, whose works were fairly priced at the time. Among the other Austrian painters he gathered were Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. Leopold was motivated to start his collection after experiencing astonishment when visiting the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in 1947, which he regarded as “one of the most crucial days of my life.” In exchange for tutoring, he paid for his first acquisition, a work by Friedrich Gauermann, in 1947. He was most known for popularizing the art of Egon Schiele (1890-1918), whose paintings of male and female nudity had long been considered decadent and even obscene. Dr. Leopold wrote several books about Schiele, notably “Egon Schiele” (Phaidon), a huge illustrated monograph published in the United States in 1973.
Along with his publications – including the 1972 Schiele monograph, which included a catalog raisonné of his paintings – his priority was to initiate and organize Schiele exhibitions in Austria and abroad, which greatly aided the artist’s and other outstanding Viennese Modernism protagonists’ international recognition today. Rudolf Leopold organized a group of Schiele’s paintings for an exhibition on Austrian Modernism at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 1955, which received international attention.
Rudolf Leopold also acquired Jugendstil and Wiener Werkstätte furniture and decorative works by artists such as Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, as well as items from Africa, Oceania, and East Asia. With the support of the Republic of Austria and the National Bank of Austria, a significant portion of Rudolf Leopold’s private collection, which had previously remained with the family among other art treasures, was merged into the Leopold Museum Private Foundation in 1994. In 2001, the collection was moved to the newly built Leopold Museum in the Museums Quartier.
The collaboration of Rudolf and Elisabeth Leopold’s civic commitment, and the visionary behavior of political decision-makers acting as supporters on behalf of the public has secured this outstanding private collection for Austria and made it permanently accessible to the public through the establishment of the museum. However, he was criticized for the source of some of his works, which critics said were seized by the Nazis from their prior Jewish owners. Even though Austria passed legislation requiring the recovery of looted art in 1998, the Leopold Museum – a private foundation – avoided returning any paintings, and its founder, widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost Schiele experts, always turned down knowingly acquiring stolen Jewish objects. Even when an independent panel evaluated the provenance of 23 disputed artworks from the Leopold Museum’s collection last year, Leopold resisted any restitutions, choosing to give compensation instead.
Rudolf Leopold was awarded the honorary title of professor in 1982 for his contributions to the visual arts. He received the Republic of Austria’s Cross of Honor for Science and Art, First Class, in 1997, and was named an officer of the French order Arts et Lettres in 2007. Rudolf Leopold died on June 29, 2010, in Vienna and was laid to rest in Grinzing Cemetery on July 6, 2010.
“What doesn’t thrill me doesn’t interest me,” declared Rudolf Leopold. The persona of Rudolf Leopold is best described by the terms excitement, craziness, brilliance, and passion. Rudolf Leopold accomplished something remarkable in the 1950s, as the globe continued to recover from war and artists grappled with new realities in startling new ways: he amassed a substantial, artistically sophisticated, and historically significant art collection of international acclaim.
He lived in the Vienna suburb of Grinzing in a modest home he and his wife had occupied for decades, which housed the various works of art he continued to acquire long after the state had purchased the majority of his collection. Leopold died of multiple-organ failure on June 29, 2010, at the age of 85, in Vienna. He was survived by his wife Elisabeth, a daughter, two sons, and four grandchildren.
In expressing his condolences, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann stated that Leopold was successful in persuading the Alpine republic’s population to appreciate Schiele’s art more. “Leopold was one of Europe’s most important art collectors,” Faymann said in a statement, adding that debates over the provenance of particular paintings should continue and be brought to a “dignified finish.” Austria has lost a devoted collector and renowned figure in the art world, according to Culture Minister Claudia Schmied, who has demanded “clarity” over Leopold’s collection.