Born in Loten, Hedmark, on December 12, 1863, Edvard Munch is considered by many to be the greatest of the Norwegian painters, having a profound influence on Expressionist painting, as well as the development of Symbolism
in the1890s. The second of five children born to Dr. Christian Munch and his wife Laura Catherine (Bjølstad), Munch’s childhood was marked by poor physical and mental
health, both of self and of family members.
The Munch lineage was Norway’s cultural aristocracy, boasting generations of prominent members of academia and clergy. The descendant of Jacob Munch (1776-1838), a well-known painter, and the brother of a distinguished historian, Christian Munch was a military physician and a deeply religious man. Unfortunately, the family tree also carried a susceptibility to tuberculosis, bronchitis and mental illness.
Shortly after the birth of Edvard, Dr. Munch moved his wife and two children, Sophie and Edvard, from Loten to Arkershus in 1864, where siblings Peter, Laura, and Inger were born in 1865, 1867, and 1868, respectively. (At
that time, Oslo was known as Christiania; the name was changed to Kristiania in 1877, then to its present name in 1925.) Weakened by the birth of her fifth child, Edvard’s mother died from tuberculoses in 1868,
when he was only five years old.
Karen Bjølstad, Edvard’s aunt, took on the duties of raising the children; and in 1875, the family moved to Grünerløkka, renting a flat amid the industrial
workers and civil servants. Dr. Munch attempted to increase his modest military income by establishing himself in private practice in this new suburb; however, the family continued to be economically challenged due
to his soft-heartedness toward patients who were unable to pay, coupled with a poor business sense.
In 1877, Edvard’s older sister Sophie also succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 15. His younger sister, Laura, was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. The pervasive infirmities of the children and the loss of both his wife and daughter plunged Dr. Munch into episodes of depression and violent temper, accompanied by the belief that the illnesses and deaths were punishments inflicted upon the family by God.
In 1878, Munch enrolled at the Technical College, where he studied mathematics and physics. His talent in technical drawing propelled him into the fireld of engineering; but in 1880, failing health forced him to leave school. It was at this time that he began to pursue painting. In 1881, Munch was admitted to the Royal Schoool of Art and Design in Kristiania, the teachings of which were primarily rooted in Realism; and it was here he studied scultpure under the direction of Julius Middlethun.
Self-Portrait. 1881, Oil on Board, 25.5x18.5cm, Munch Museum, Oslo
The Kristiania-Bohème and Early Exhibitions
In 1882, Munch shared a rented studio with six other artists, supervised by the painter Christian Krohg, who was considered the “dean of the Bohemian painters.” Under Krohg’s influence, Munch took part in the organization of the first Høstutstilling, free of the Norwegian Kunstforening’s sponsorship and censorship. This was Munch’s first public exhibition, and as subject matter the participating artists exhibited selected studies of the urban poor and Norwegian landscapes.
In autumn 1883, Munch attended Frits Thaulow’s Friluftsakademi at Modum. He showed his first large oil, Girl Kindling a Stove at the Open Air Academy’s Autumn exhibition and was awarded a small grant to study in Antwerp and Paris. Munch soon added to his academic training experiments in a semi-Impressionist Naturalism, as advocated by Krohg and Thaulow in their efforts to create a national landscape style based on plein-air painting and influenced by the contemporary art of Paris. This new style also underlined the process of Norwegian independence from Sweden, linked with parliamentary liberalism and ideas of radical social reform.
Girl Kindling a Stove. 1883, Oil on Canvas, 96.5x66cm, Private Collection
Sister Inger. 1884, Oil on Canvas, 97x67cm, Nasjonalgellereit, Oslo
While in Antwerp, he exhibited Inger in Black at the World’s Exhibition, his first international showing, which was panned by critics. His Paris stay included visits to the Salon and the Louvre, absorbing the techniques of master painters while he continued developing his style of landscapes.
Upon returning to Norway, Munch became entrenched with the growing number of writers, students and artists who made upt he Kristiania-Bohème. It was in 1885-1886 that the Kristiania-Bohème was most public, and this is the time that Munch spent working on The Sick Child, a melancholy memorial to his deceased sister which he had begun in Paris and finished in Noway.
The Sick Child. 1885-1887, Oil on Canvas, Tate Gallery, London
Norwegian Landscape, Drawing, 22x16.5cm, Falmouth Art Gallery
The group’s spokesman and anarchist writer, Hans Jaeger, preached an anti-bourgeois lifestyle of freedom and sexual liberation, social equality, and the rejection of Christianity. This encouraged a fundamentally subjective and introspective quality to the art of the time.
In accodance with Jaeger’s dictum of working from personal experience, The Sick Child represents a variation of Impressionist technique. In the lengthy alterations, Munch built up coagulations of paint into which the actual image was more scratched than painted and over which a veil of paint was placed and removed during a partial repainting. This experimation created effects similar to those of James Ensor and Vincent van Gogh in the late 1880s, and are recognized as precursors of 20th Century Expressionism.
Nevertheless, 1886 Norway was unappreciative of the work, and his showing at the 1886 Høstutstilling exhibition was attacked by both critics and fellow artists. Only Jaeger and the newspaper Dagen came to Munch’s defense, calling it the intuitive work of a genius.
While in Norway, Munch began an affair with Emily “Millie” Ihlen Thaulow, the wife of Fritz Thaulow’s brother, Carl. He also began to express himself in writing, setting forth an autobiographical journal which served as a reference for the majority of his paintings in the early 1890s. During this period, Jaeger was involved in a love affair with Krohg’s wife; and undoubtedly this and Munch’s own numerous affairs intensified his emotional expressions of women, love and death.
Munch held a one-man exhibition of his works at the Studentersamfund, Kristiania in April and May of 1889. This was his first substantial showing, held at the Student Organization in Kristiania. This was an event unprecedented in Norway aside from a celebration of the respected academic landscape painter Hans Fredrik Gude. In place of The Sick Child, Munch substituted Spring, a massive new painting on the same theme, painted in a more conservative and Naturalist style.
Despite the controversy surrounding him, the collection received a favorable review from Christian Krohg. This led to an award of a three-year grant, contingent upon study with a drawing tutor. In 1889 Munch spent his first summer at the Norway resort Åsgårdstrand on Kristianiafjord (now Oslofjord), the retreat to which he consistently returned and which for 20 years provided the setting for innumerable paintings.
That autumn, Munch returned to Paris, where he studied under Léon Bonnet. Although Munch had briefly visited exhibition in Antwerp and Paris in 1885, it was the Exposition Universelle of 1889 and other Paris art exhibitions where Munch absorbed extensive examples of contemporary paintings.
Less than a year after his return to Paris, Munch relocated to St. Cloud, where he continued writing and painting. Shortly thereafter, word of the unexpected death of his father caused yet another spiritual and emotional crisis in Munch, causing him to reject Jaeger’s anti-Christian teachings. His expression of emotion through art reached a new pinnacle in the spring of 1890, with two of Munch’s most important works, Night in St. Cloud, a memorial to his father, and Spring Day on Karl Johan Street, a sunny view of people promenading on Kristiania’s main thoroughfare in spring. Adapting principles of Neo-Impressionism, the two images contrast representations of death and grief, then life and joy.
Night in St. Cloud. 1890, Oil on Canvas, 64.5x54cm, Nasjonalgallereit, Oslo
Spring Day in Karl Johan Street 1890, Oil on Canvas, 80x100cm, Bergen Billedgalleri
Also in 1890, Munch’s paintings were shown at the Autumn Exhibition. (Evening, now commonly known as Melancholy, is considered the first depiction of his St. Cloud Manifesto concept, serving as an early motif for his Frieze of Life works.) Aside from encouragement from Krohg, his contribution to the exhibition went relatively unnoticed; and Munch returned to France after receiving another state scholarship.
In 1891, he drew illustrations for Alruner, a collection of Emanuel Goldstein’s poetry. Other drawings created during this phase include work for publication with (but not illustrations for) writings of Norwegian poets Vilhelm Krag and Sigbjorn Obstfelder. It was during this time that Munch did intial paintings of The Kiss and Despair and outlined a range of emotional and subject matter to which he returned repeatedly and which formed the foundation for a group of paintings entitled Love.
The Kiss. 1897, Oil on Canvas, 99x81cm, Munch Museum
Melancholy (Evening). 1894-96, Woodcut with Hand Coloring, 37.7x45cm, Cleveland Museum of Art
In the autumn of 1892, at the invitation of Verein Berliner Kuenstler (Association of Berlin Artists), an official organization consisting primarily of German academic artists, Munch traveled to Berlin to mount a retrospective of his work. The exhibit met with public outrage and was forcibly closed within days.
The Scream. 1893, Crayon and Tempera on Board, 83.5x66cm National Gallery Oslo, Norway
Death in the Sickroom. 1893, Oil on Canvas, 134.5x160cm, Munch Museum
The “Munch Affair” aggravated existing tension within Berlin’s art community. The younger dissenting members broke with the Verein to launch the Neue Berlin Sezession (New Berlin Secession) movement, an interpretive direction which became an integral part of the development of German Expressionism. Artists responded by establishing the Freie Künstler Vereinigung (The Union of Free Artists) to promote and preserve artistic creativity and to protest censorship.
The attention garnered as a result of the controversy worked to Munch’s advantage, bringing immediate notoriety within the circle of artists, writers and social critics. Polish poet Stanislaw Pryzbyszewski’s book Das Werk des Edvard Munch, co-authored with German art historian Julius Meier-Graefe was published in Berlin in 1894, adopting the term “psychological realism,” in regard to Munch’s work, as used by his contemporaries to describe him.
The “Affair” also provided Munch with unprecedented publicity, promising a significant German market for his art and carrying invitations to exhibit elsewhere in Germany, including Berlin’s Equitable Palast in December of the same year. Enjoying both financial and social benefits, Munch remained in Berlin for the next few years. It was here he met Swedish dramatist August Strindberg, whose plays carried themes of intense interpersonal relationships, rather the theatrical equivalent of Munch’s art. Munch later became acquainted with another well-known Scandinavian dramatist and fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen, and Munch designed sets for Ibsen's Paris production of Peer Gynt. During his years in Berlin, Munch also met Norwegian cultural activist Dagny Juell, inspiration for numerous works, including Madonna, and The Hands. It is said that Juell remained the most influential woman in Munch’s life.
Madonna. 1894, Oil on Canvas, 90x68.5cm, Munch Museum
Munch’s work centered more around the graphic arts at this time, but he continued to pursue the completion of a cycle of paintings he called The Frieze of Life: A Poem about Life, Love, and Death. The first of the works in the series, including Melancholy, were exhibited on Unter den Linden, the fashionable Berlin Avenue, in December of 1893. Death in the Sickroom, a memorial to the death of his older sister, was included. By the following year Anxiety,Ashes, and the controversial Madonna, had been added. Other examples of some of Munch’s most renowned work are part of the cycle, including Jealousy, The Kiss, and The Dance of Life, as well as The Scream, one of the most ubiquitous images of modern art and popular culture. Although The Frieze of Life was essentially completed in 1893, it was not shown in its entirety until 1902.
The Dance of Life. 1899, Oil on Canvas, 49.5x75in, Nasjonalgalleriet
Ashes. 1894, Oil on Canvas, 120.5x141cm, Nasjonalgalleriet
The Major Cycles and other Disciplines
Munch returned to Paris, holding small exhibits at Salon Indépendants and Bing’s Art Nouveau Gallery. Paris afforded him the company of fellow artists and musicians, including Strindberg and Auguste Clot, with whom Munch collaborated for his first woodcuts. At this time, his focus was on the graphic arts, producing posters for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and John Gabriel Borkman; and by 1984, Munch had learned to make drypoints. Many of his Frieze motifs provided the material for his initial attempts at printmaking, which he began as a means of making his art more accessible to the masses; and in 1986, he produced his first color lithographs.
Meier-Graefe and Bodenhausen published an initial portfolio of eight drypoints in 1895, to be followed by a more ambitious portfolio of 20 lithographs and woodcuts called Speilet (The Mirror), which was announced in1897, but never completed. Since meeting with Strindberg in 1892, Munch had also become interested in photography and purchased a small camera in Berlin in 1902, which he used to document his work and to provide the basis for portraits and other compositions. Although he never felt his photography carried the merit of his art, he found it to be particularly useful in revealing character and used it extensive for self-portraits. His photographs reflected a more experimental attitude than Munch’s other disciplines, particularly with regard to their treatment of light and the use of blurring, motion, and double exposures.
Moonlight I. 1896. Color Woodcut. Munch Museum
After 1895, Munch spent considerable time traveling throughout France and Germany, including Copenhagen, Berlin and Paris. This, coupled with a turbulent romantic involvement with Norwegian Tulla Larsen which began in 1898, necessitated a stay in the sanitorium of Kornhaug in Gudbrandsdalen in 1899-1900. There he continued working on variations on The Frieze of Life.
Munch enjoyed a number of exhibitions in the early 1900s, including Kristiania, Berlin, Hamberg and Vienna. In 1902, The Frieze of Life – incuding the Love, Anxiety, and Death motifs - was exhibited in its entirely at the Berlin Secession. That year Munch sought to end his relationship with Larsen; the ensuing argument resulted in a gunshot wound to his left hand which left him with a permanent injury.
In 1903, he was awarded a state grant from Germany; and in 1904 he sold 800 prints and received commissions for portraits by numerous German aristocrats and industrialists. Despite intense psychological turmoil, Munch fulfilled his commissions, which included a frieze of 12 tempera paintings for the Kammerspielhaus of Max Reinhardt. Paintings commissioned for the childrens’ room of German collector Max Linde was completed in 1904, but was rejected as Munch did not produce the landscapes Linde requested.
Munch began painting a new cycle on love relationships, entitled The Green Room. Incorporating various stylistic approaches, these works continued to explore the motifs of The Frieze of Life, but focused more on group dynamics rather than individual relationships. This phase is evident in the monumental triptych Bathing Men (The Ages of Life) , wherein Youth, Maturity (Bathing Men) and Old Age celebrate the fraternal aspects of masculinity and virility.
Norway and Oslo
Munch’s delicate mental and physical health continued to decline, aggravated by nicotine poisoning and excessive alcohol consumption. In 1908, he entered the Copenhagen, Denmark sanatorium of Dr. Daniel Jacobsen, where he remained for eight months seeking relief of his self-diagnosed “nerve crisis.” During this period of recuperation, he continued producing portraits and arranged sales to Norwegian collectors. He also arranged a retrospective exhibition in Kristiania.
Upon his release from the clinic, Munch relocated to Kragerø on the southern Norwegian coast. In the midst of World War I, and isolated from his patrons in Germany, Munch found a receptive Norwegian audience. Industrialists and ship owners who were enjoying new-found wealth from Norway’s wartime neutrality became his source of commissions and funding. In 1915 he collected autobiographical material and augmented it with selected drawings and prints, producing a bound portfolio he called The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He also reworked paintings and motifs of the 1890s and early 1900s. He entered a competition for the commission of wall paintings for the newly-constructed University Aula in Kristiania. Munch received the commission; and the paintings, the most important of which were History, Alma Mater and The Sun, were finally installed in The University’s Great Hall (The Aula) in 1916.
That year, Munch bought a home in Ekely, where he lived out his remaining days. The effect Munch had on German contemporary art was becoming recognized and acknowledged, and in 1917 Curt Glaser published the biography Edvard Munch inBerlin. The early 1920s were prolific for Munch, who traveled to Berlin, Paris, Wiesbaden, and Frankfurt. He exhibited in Switzerland and Germany, where he was now accepted as a member of the Kunstakademien of Prussia and Bavaria.
Towards the Forest II. 1915, Woodcut with Gouges, 50.4x647cm, Munch Museet
Model by Wicker Chair, 1919-1921, Oil on Canvas, 112.5x100cm, Munch Museet
In 1926, Much’s sister Laura died, and he became more and more withdrawn. While he appeared to significantly withdraw from the art world, his paintings reflected a feeling of homecoming and feature Norwegian landscapes.
Munch celebrated his 70th birthday in 1933. The following years proved less profitable. His art was removed from German museums, and opportunities for exhibition decreased dramatically. Munch withdrew into an isolated existence, focusing on his art and growing crops at his estate. Cysts in his eyes caused temporary partial blindness, and a broken blood vessel caused severe and permanent damage to his right eye, slowing his production considerably. He rarely left his studio and took to using a model. Yet, Munch managed to produce many graphic works in these final decades, including a series of self-portraits which illustrate his attitude toward the winter of his life.
Starry Night. 1922-1924, Oil on Canvas, 140x119cm, Munch Museet
Self-Portrait: Night Wanderer, 1923-1924, Oil on Canvas,90x68cm
When he became fatally ill, Munch drew up a will bequeathing all his remaining work—1,100 paintings, approximately 18,000 prints and a large number of their plates, 4,500 watercolours and drawings, and six sculptures, 92 sketchbooks, and numerous letters and pieces of correspondence —to the Oslo Kommune (Municipality of Oslo). He died peacefully in Ekely on January 23, 1944, at the age of 81.
A large portion of his work is in the Munch Museum, which opened in Oslo in 1963. The museum now has in its permanent collection well over half of Munch’s entire catalog of paintings and at least one copy of each of his prints. This brings the inventory to over 1,100 paintings, 15,500 prints covering 700 motives, six sculptures, 500 plates, and 2,240 books, in addition to letters and other personal items.