Artwork of the Month, April 2021: Family Portrait (The Keller Family) by Ernst Nepo (1929)

Ernst Nepo‘s Family Portrait (The Keller Family) is considered one of the most important social portraits in Austrian art between the wars. In it, the Innsbruck architect Wilhelm Keller (1886–1934) and his wife Anni stage their social self-image and idea of education through their daughters.[1] On first sight, the painting presents itself as a sharp photographic snapshot.[2] In contrast to previous interpretations, however, the aim here is not merely to observe this style and its pretended spontaneity, but to consider the way the work also indicates new ideas of childhood and youth in the interwar period. What image of the adolescent appears, with the girls Ditta and Dora larger than life in front of the viewer? What role do they have within their family? Moreover, what do the architectural toys indicate?

Ernst Nepo

The artist was born Ernst Nepomucky in Dubá, Bohemia, in 1895. He went to the art school in Teplice at the age of fourteen before transferring to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts in 1913/14 to study with Oskar Strnad (1879–1935), Alfred Roller (1864–1935) and Adolf Boehm (1861–1927).[3] The latter curated the room displaying ‘Art for Children’ at the famous Kunstschau exhibition organised by Gustav Klimt in Vienna in 1908, paralleling a room with ‘Art by Children’ by the pedagogical reformer Franz Čižek (1865–1946).[4] Nepo absorbed some of the reform ideas and interest in children’s art of his teacher. During the war, Nepo met the painter Alphons Schnegg (1895–1932) and joined him to move to the village of Mühlau near Innsbruck. In 1920, he shortened his name to Nepo, presumably to leave his Bohemian origin behind. Later, he founded the so-called ‘Mühlau Circle’ of artists with Herbert Gurschner (1901–1975), Rudolf Lehnert (1893–1932) and Schnegg. In 1927, he became a member of the Vienna Secession. Because of his good connections in the local art scene in Tyrol, he received many portrait commissions, such as this one from the Keller family. He was also drawn to National Socialism – he joined the party sometime between 1933 and 1938 – as a result of which he became the regional director of the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts in Tyrol after the Anschluss in 1938 until 1943. After 1945, he again received numerous public commissions for monumental murals and portraits.

Ernst Nepo, Familienportrat Keller, 1929

Ernst Nepo: Family Portrait (The Keller Family), 1929, Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck, Moderne Sammlungen – photo: Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum

His early work shows influences of Giovanni Segantini (1858–1899) and Egon Schiele and follows the contemporary style of Expressionism. In addition to expressive works and spiritual-romantic scenes of the early 1920s, such as the Boy with Blue Flower (1922), he shows himself as a progressive, urban artist in the Self-Portrait with Woman (1921), with an abstract background vaguely reminiscent of Viennese Kinetism. In addition to a great interest in portraiture, he painted still-lifes and landscapes. From the mid-1920s onward, realistic subjects from urban life take centre stage in his paintings, as the Mühlau Circle was close to the bigger city of Innsbruck.

The portrait – two ways of building

The painting shows the two young daughters in the middle of a large, indeterminate room. Nepo created the atmosphere of a rich, exquisite and somewhat artificial household. The slanted, blue and white checkerboard pattern of the carpet creates a strong isometric perspective and draws the viewer into the image. Nepo placed the children of the Keller family, Ditta on the left and Dora on the right, as if on a stage. The children are looking in the direction of the viewer.

Ernst Nepo, study for the portrait of Dora Keller, 1929

Ernst Nepo: Portrait of Dora Keller, 1929, Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck, Grafische Sammlung – photo: Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum

Dora is busy setting the keystone on the top of the building block tower. Standing broad-legged and leaning on the table, the pose suggests an active figure, in the process of completing the tower, confidently expressed as well on her face. Ditta, on the left, skims through a book full of illustrations, presumably landscapes or possibly works of art. This suggests an intellectual character, which also corresponds with her cautious and shyly withdrawn posture. Together with her haircut and the softer falling side-parting of her hair, this indicates nuances and differences in the appearance of the two girls. Nepo’s preliminary drawings already differentiate between how they look.

With the clothing, the painter has placed a strong blue-red contrast in the centre; this draws the viewer’s attention towards the binary distinction between the two girls. The blocks of the toy tower are also partially colour-coordinated with the children’s clothes. Interestingly the dark base of the tower, the pedestal, and the red tower segments, belong to Ditta. Her dress appears burgundy, while the bright blue of Dora’s dress corresponds at best to the tiles of the carpet pattern. Compared to this symbolism, which needs further analysis, the parents recede strongly into the background. This suggests a possibly looser bond than what the genre of the family portrait usually exemplifies.

Ernst Nepo, study for the portrait of Ditta Keller, 1929

Ernst Nepo: Portrait of Ditta Keller, 1929, Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck, Grafische Sammlung – photo: Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum

It’s a showpiece for the accomplishments of the two daughters, not necessarily for functioning family life or domesticity. The mother stands outside on a balcony with her gaze averted, behind her an icy, enraptured landscape, the father in the doorway, holding his left elbow with his right hand, in an expectant but also pensive gesture. Nepo gives the parents a less prominent role, compared to the sharply contoured daughters, their round-cheeked faces, and exquisite dresses. The private image of Keller’s family contains an idealized image of the education of his children. The viewer sees a modernized family charged with attributes, pointing towards the future roles of the children, while presenting it with an almost uncanny coolness, suitable to the family’s high social status and habitus. In fact, the latter term describes the combination of private characteristics and the roles we play in public – and their ideal merging is the aspiration of the commissioned portrait.

The two children play and read next to each other in a strictly composed arrangement. Nepo lets both daughters approach the father’s profession together, in two separate roles. Consequently, in the paintings, two axes determine the action.[5] Male attributes seem to belong to Dora, such as the wide-legged stance and the short hairstyle, which indicate her active role. She takes over the execution of the construction and belongs to the father on the right side of the picture. On the left side, Ditta stands for intellectual activity, symbolized by the open book. Since she has her place on the mother’s side, the viewer can interpret this differently. Does this allude to old role models – the father’s side shows the active male part, and the mother’s female contemplation? Historically, women could pursue creative activities in their free time, but how would intellectual efforts fit in, stereotypically reserved only for men? Perhaps the painting does not follow these binaries at all, and it is just that architecture equally requires active and intellectual abilities? The painter assembles this ambiguously, since the mother stands outside the house, supposedly her household, enraptured in a cold landscape. Was she an equal partner to her husband? Her turned head suggests that she is looking at something out of sight of the viewer, perhaps longing to be elsewhere, far away from her traditional role. In the foreground, however, through the warm effect of Ditta’s clothing and the colour correspondence to the base stone, the pedestal, a more complex view seems to unfold itself. Through the daughter Ditta on the left side of the picture, contemplation and reflection appear as the basis of all building, as the source of architecture. Thus, both sides balance each other out and work together.

Toy worlds and artistic education

Not only are these roles significant in the painting. Nepo demonstrates in ‘Family Portrait (Keller)’ how toys help children to appropriate the world – in training architectural perception of colour and space. This not only represents the ambitions of the architect’s family, but also points to the state of pedagogy at the time. Since the Biedermeier period, where education became a visible part of bourgeois representation, there are many such family portraits with playing children. Since the second half of 19th century, there were also discussions about appropriate toys for children, which, according to contemporaries, should not depict the world too realistically, but should ensure creative freedom by elementary forms. Ever since the ideas of the pedagogue Friedrich Fröbel (1782–1852) became widespread, simple geometric shapes were used as appropriate tools for children to explore their environment, an idea that was later adopted in Maria Montessori‘s (1870–1952) reform schools and kindergartens.[6] This later became popular in the Habsburg Monarchy, and schools there soon placed great emphasis on teaching drawing, in classes focusing on elementary geometric shapes.[7] Around 1900 such ideas finally penetrated into high art. Reform circles such as the Wiener Werkstätte oriented themselves to traditional crafts and imitated simple folk toys from Bohemia or Slovakia (then still Upper Hungary).[8] The artists and designers Fanny Harlfinger-Zakucka (1873–1954) and Minka Podhajská (1881–1963) worked in the workshops in Prague and Vienna. The most important achievements of the Werkstätte were shown to the public at the Kunstschau in 1908, and critics continued to discuss the child-friendly design of the toys.[9] Model toy cities, built of toy building blocks, were particularly popular; Josef Hoffmann (1870–1956), Koloman Moser (1868–1918) and Dagobert Peche (1887–1923) all produced versions of these. The artists initially designed the toys mostly for their children, but the modern forms became popular in regular building block games and were soon available to a bigger audience. The example of Josef Hoffmann shows apartment blocks of a big city and parts of modern factories.[10] Ladislav Sutnar (1897–1976) later also continued this tradition, which Nepo adopted when he depicts the architect’s children with elementary architectural toys.[11] A preliminary study in oil shows the painter’s attempt to break up the sterile atmosphere with two colourful balls on the table, indicating the playful element of these toy construction sets. As the many examples show, there was a great interest among artists in proper education with simple toys, which would free the young generation from the burden of historical styles.

Overall, the family portrait conveys a liberal attitude, according to which child’s play transfers the male profession of an architect habitually to the daughters. Women as trained architects were still something rare in the interwar period.[12] Another preliminary study, executed as a large charcoal drawing, shows buildings in the background, which also associates the mother with architecture. The selection of rather sophisticated building blocks refers to children of older age, who no longer deal with the simplest toys, but design filigree forms and develop a feeling for aesthetic spaces. The raised arcades of the blocks and the neat articulation of the structure suggest a certain understanding of form.

New Realisms

Nepo’s family portrait is reminiscent the abstract architectural ciphers found in the work of artists such as Giorgio de Chirico or Carlo Carrà during this era. Nepo was acquainted with contemporary art through his friend Herbert Gurschner, who travelled a lot in Italy. These Italian artists often integrated dark streetscapes with enigmatic buildings into their paintings and were widely received north of the Alps. Nested spaces were a frequently sought effect to express distance and estrangement from reality. Nepo’s highly oblique perspective reveals a similar interest in spatial constructions and shows the painter as a kindred spirit of the architect as well as the Italian painters.

Cagnaccio di San Pietro: Children Playing, 1925

Cagnaccio di San Pietro: Children Playing, 1925 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

It has been suggested that a painting by the Italian painter Cagnaccio di San Pietro (1897–1946) was a possible model for the portrait by Nepo.[13] In Bambini che giocano (1925), two bored boys and a girl play with their toys. The formal similarities are striking, the tiled floor, in an otherwise empty room, and the realistic hard-edged style with which the children are depicted. The children look like glued-on cardboard stencils, as if in a still life. Two balls, a punching game with a sandbag and dolls, a merry-go-round with birds, an automobile with a doll, and two wooden figures of animals are part of the toys. Cagnaccio does not present the principles of higher education, despite the many toys, rather boredom and sleepiness prevail. The children’s modern, dark, grown-up clothes reinforced this feeling of not fitting in. Cagnaccio demonstrates estranged middle-class children in their playroom, not the creative youth proudly learning their fathers’ profession. The toys remain unnoticed. The ennui and boredom of childhood triumphs.


Vienna was a laboratory for many progressive educational concepts, such as the Montessori kindergartens or other initiatives for the working class or the socially weak. Although not directly related to them, Nepo’s family portrait alludes to reform ideas around toy design and proper education alongside the cool, casual appropriation of the father’s profession in a privileged family. Artistically, the painting is close to work by contemporary Italian painters who often depicted this estranged atmosphere. However, portraiture in the interwar period often goes hand in hand with a didactic gesture, and although only catering for a middle-class audience, Nepo’s painting shows how the perfect education of children might look like. Seemingly, in the case of the architect Wilhelm Keller, it is not about the private bond of the family, but about the ambitions of the children in the future, ambitions maybe already lost to the parents in the background. This way, the painter indirectly creates an awareness for the constructed nature of children’s education and their appropriation of social roles. The commissioned painting clearly demonstrates the family’s ambition for the public: Ditta and Dora are future architects and both girls possess the intellectual and practical abilities necessary. Secondarily though, like the building on the table, the painting exemplifies how parents literally construct and shape their children’s lives.

Christian Drobe

[1] According to the Jewish Museum in Hohenems, Keller was a Jewish architect, born Wilhelm Kohn in 1886. He committed suicide in 1934 and his wife and daughters Dora and Ditta emigrated to Sweden in 1938. I thank Raphael Einetter for the information. No further details have been found yet.

[2] Gert Ammann, ‘Bemerkungen zur Malerei der Neuen Sachlichkeit in Österreich,’ in Die Ungewisse Hoffnung. Österreichische Malerei und Graphik zwischen 1918 und 1938, eds Christoph Bertsch and Markus Neuwirth (Salzburg, 1993), p. 19.

[3] Silvia Höller, Ernst Nepo: Zwischen Expression und Sachlichkeit, exhibition catalogue Kunstbrücke Innsbruck (Vienna, 2001). See also Gert Ammann, Ernst Nepo: 1895–1971 (Innsbruck, 1981).

[4] Meghan Brandow-Faller, ‘An Artist in Every Child – A Child in Every Artist’: Artistic Toys and Art for the Child at the Kunstschau 1908,’ West 86th 20.2 (2013), pp. 195–225.

[5] Höller, Ernst Nepo, p. 42.

[6] Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900–2000, eds Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor, exhibition catalogue, MoMA  (New York, 2012), p. 30.

[7] Alexander Klee, ‘Forming a Common Language. The Teaching of Drawing in the Habsburg Empire from 1850,’ in Drawing Education: Worldwide! Continuities – Transfers – Mixtures, eds Nino Nanobashvili and Tobias Teutenberg (Heidelberg, 2019), pp. 7996.

[8] Kunst – ein Kinderspiel, eds Max Hollein and Gunda Luyken, exhibition catalogue Schirn Kunsthalle (Frankfurt, 2004), p. 30.

[9] Brandow-Faller, ‘An Artist in Every Child.’

[10] Kunst – ein Kinderspiel, eds Hollein and Luyken, p. 33.

[11] Century of the Child, eds Kinchin and O’Connor, pp. 8687.

[12] Frau Architekt: Seit mehr als 100 Jahren: Frauen im Architektenberuf / Over 100 Years of Women as Professional Architects, eds Christian Budde and Mary Pepchinski,  (Tübingen, 2017).

[13] Ammann, ‘Bemerkungen zur Malerei der Neuen Sachlichkeit in Österreich,’ p. 19.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/EF5KR

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