Art History: Edvard Munch, 1863-1944

Edvard Munch was born in 1863 in the countryside of Norway to Christian and Laura Munch.  At just a year old, Edvard’s family moved to Christiania, Norway, which is now Oslo.  His childhood was miserable, full of death and family mental issues.  His mother died of tuberculosis (tb) by the time Edvard was five, and one of his four siblings died of tb by the time he turned 14.  Another sister was institutionalized for going mad, and a grandfather died of mental disease.  Munch and his only brother survived tb.

Edvard showed a propensity for art early in life, starting with drawing and watercolors then moving to oils by age 13.  His father sent him to engineering school, but this was not for Edvard.  Much to his father’s dismay, Munch quit university and headed off to be an artist.  At 17, in 1881, he enrolled in the Royal School of Art at Christiania, under the tutelege of Julius Middelthun and Christian Krohg.  He was greatly influenced by Impressionism, and began a bohemian lifestyle that would strain an already tense relationship with his father, who was not amused by Munch’s choice of style, and whom Munch depended on for monetary support.  His subject choice was also greatly debated, as death, melancholy, and his surroundings of taverns and their clientele seemed to inspire him most.  In 1886 he painted , The Sick Child, which was one of his most controversial paintings to date.  It portrays his mother at the deathbed of his sister Sophie who was dying from tb.  Munch’s work to date had little approval from the public, however The Sick Child, in the view of the public and art critics alike, was a tasteless work that should never have been displayed at all.

In 1889, Munch began a two-year school under the tutelage of French painter Leon Bonnat.  The lessons proved boring to Munch, as he noted in his diaries, but he thoroughly enjoyed his excursions to the museums and galleries of Paris with Bonnat and his commentaries on the paintings they viewed.  He quickly became influenced by Henri Toulouse de Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Georges Seurat.  Later that same year, Edvard’s father died.  He and his family were virtually penniless, so Munch left Paris to take care of what family he had left.

By 1890, Munch had turned to Expressionism, feeling bored with the limitations of Impressionism.  His main goal was to paint his soul, his feelings, his life.  Art critics and the public were once again upset at his efforts, calling his work unfinished and primitive, and the violent outbursts at gallery showings oftentimes would shut the shows down due to the commotion his paintings created.

The Sick Child, 1885 by Edvard Munch, oil, (fourth version painted in 1907 is on view in the collection of Tate Gallery, London)

Munch continued to paint and exhibit his work, regardless of the unwelcome reactions and criticisms he had grown accustomed to.  His paintings dove deeper into the psychological realm, as did his own psychosis.  He very rarely sold original paintings, but often made copies or prints available to the public.  Munch affectionately referred to the originals as “my children”.

Frieze of Life    -Munch’s largest project was his “Frieze of Life”, a series of paintings that he considered a “poem about life, love, and death”.  The Frieze consisted of over 24 paintings, however, in true Munch fashion, he was constantly adding, subtracting, even reworking some of the paintings.  He also made and sold copies and prints of many of them.  He began the works for the Frieze in 1892 and continued throughout the decade on them.

At the turn of the century, Munch entered a relationship with an upper class woman named Tulla Larsen.  After traveling together for a few months, Tulla’s conversations turned to marriage, something that was not on Edvard’s horizon.  His poor health and tendency towards alcohol marred any vision he ever had of the notion, not to mention his own family history.  He left Tulla for Berlin, where his paintings actually started having positive feedback.  Munch’s struggles would continue though, despite an upturn in critical review of his work.  Not only was he in an altercation with another artist, but Tulla eventually contacted him once more.  She demanded to see him and with the help of some friends, brought him to her home.  They lured Munch by telling him she was on her deathbed and had requested to see him.  When he entered the room, she told him she was not sick at all and threatened to kill herself if he would not have her back.  She brandished a pistol and as they struggled, the gun went off, injuring two of Munch’s fingers, fortunately on the opposite hand he painted with.  This led to more paintings with deep and torn emotions, not only regarding women, but life itself.

In 1906, Edvard was invited to exhibit with a group of artists in Paris known as the Fauvists, whom Munch had inspired.  He finally started becoming financially stable through portrait commissions and prints he had made of his work.  This success would be short-lived however, as alcohol and his mental condition worsened.   He was hospitalized for eight months for hallucinations and anxiety.  As his later paintings would show, the therapy and rest were good for him.  He returned to Norway once again in 1909, and the public started to accept Munch as an artist.  His paintings had more color and he had expanded to landscapes and full length portraits.  He started to affiliate himself with a better crowd, and, on doctor’s orders, drank less, thereby giving himself as stable a life as he had ever known.   He returned to the family estate at Ekely, Norway, where he painted regularly.

Edvard painted right up to the end.  On January 23, 1944, at the age of 80, Munch died at Ekely.  His house was demolished in 1946.  His works are represented in museums all over the world, however, the largest collection is the Munch Museum in Oslo.  He bequeathed nearly 1,100 paintings, 4,500 drawings, and some 18,000 prints to the city.  His most famous work, “The Scream”, is still used in many applications today according to copyright, and is one of the most widely recognized pieces of art today.  (My next post will be about the painting The Scream and some interesting facts surrounding it)

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