Edvard Munch ( 12 December 1863 – 23 January 1944) was a Norwegian painter and printmaker whose intensely evocative treatment of psychological themes built upon some of the main tenets of late 19th-century Symbolism and greatly influenced German Expressionism in the early 20th century. One of his most well-known works is The Scream of 1893.
Edvard Munch was born in a farmhouse in the village of Ådalsbruk in Løten, Norway, to Laura Catherine Bjølstad and Christian Munch, the son of a priest. Christian was a doctor and medical officer who married Laura, a woman half his age, in 1861. Edvard had an elder sister, Johanne Sophie, and three younger siblings: Peter Andreas, Laura Catherine, and Inger Marie. Both Sophie and Edvard appear to have inherited their artistic talent from their mother. Edvard Munch was related to painter Jacob Munch and historian Peter Andreas Munch.
The family moved to Christiania (now Oslo) in 1864 when Christian Munch was appointed medical officer at Akershus Fortress. Edvard’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, as did Munch’s favorite sister Johanne Sophie in 1877. After their mother’s death, the Munch siblings were raised by their father and by their aunt Karen.
Often ill for much of the winters and kept out of school, Edvard would draw to keep himself occupied. He was tutored by his school mates and his aunt. Christian Munch also instructed his son in history and literature, and entertained the children with vivid ghost-stories and the tales of American writer Edgar Allan Poe.
As Edvard remembered it, Christian’s positive behavior toward his children was overshadowed by his morbid pietism. Munch wrote, “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.” Christian reprimanded his children by telling them that their mother was looking down from heaven and grieving over their misbehavior.
The oppressive religious milieu, plus Edvard’s poor health and the vivid ghost stories, helped inspire his macabre visions and nightmares; the boy felt that death was constantly advancing on him. One of Munch’s younger sisters was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. Of the five siblings, only Andreas married, but he died a few months after the wedding. Munch would later write, “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption and insanity.”
Christian Munch’s military pay was very low, and his attempts to develop a private side practice failed, keeping his family in genteel but perennial poverty. They moved frequently from one cheap flat to another. Munch’s early drawings and watercolors depicted these interiors, and the individual objects, such as medicine bottles and drawing implements, plus some landscapes. By his teens, art dominated Munch’s interests.
At thirteen, Munch had his first exposure to other artists at the newly formed Art Association, where he admired the work of the Norwegian landscape school. He returned to copy the paintings, and soon he began to paint in oils.
Munch arrived in Paris during the festivities of the Exposition Universelle (1889) and roomed with two fellow Norwegian artists. His picture, Morning (1884), was displayed at the Norwegian pavilion.
He spent his mornings at Bonnat’s busy studio (which included live female models) and afternoons at the exhibition, galleries, and museums (where students were expected to make copies as a way of learning technique and observation).
Munch recorded little enthusiasm for Bonnat’s drawing lessons—”It tires and bores me—it’s numbing”—but enjoyed the master’s commentary during museum trips.
Munch was enthralled by the vast display of modern European art, including the works of three artists who would prove influential: Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec—all notable for how they used color to convey emotion.
Munch was particularly inspired by Gauguin’s “reaction against realism” and his credo that “art was human work and not an imitation of Nature”, a belief earlier stated by Whistler. As one of his Berlin friends said later of Munch, “he need not make his way to Tahiti to see and experience the primitive in human nature. He carries his own Tahiti within him.”
That December, his father died, leaving Munch’s family destitute. He returned home and arranged a large loan from a wealthy Norwegian collector when wealthy relatives failed to help, and assumed financial responsibility for his family from then on.
Christian’s death depressed him and he was plagued by suicidal thoughts: “I live with the dead—my mother, my sister, my grandfather, my father…Kill yourself and then it’s over. Why live?” Munch’s paintings of the following year included sketchy tavern scenes and a series of bright cityscapes in which he experimented with the pointillist style of Georges Seurat.
In the autumn of 1908, Munch’s anxiety, compounded by excessive drinking and brawling, had become acute. As he later wrote, “My condition was verging on madness—it was touch and go.” Subject to hallucinations and feelings of persecution, he entered the clinic of Dr. Daniel Jacobson. The therapy Munch received for the next eight months included diet and “electrification” (a treatment then fashionable for nervous conditions, not to be confused with electroconvulsive therapy).
Munch’s stay in hospital stabilized his personality, and after returning to Norway in 1909, his work became more colorful and less pessimistic. Further brightening his mood, the general public of Christiania finally warmed to his work, and museums began to purchase his paintings. He was made a Knight of the Royal Order of St. Olav “for services in art”. His first American exhibit was in 1912 in New York.
As part of his recovery, Dr. Jacobson advised Munch to only socialize with good friends and avoid drinking in public. Munch followed this advice and in the process produced several full-length portraits of high quality of friends and patrons—honest portrayals devoid of flattery.
He also created landscapes and scenes of people at work and play, using a new optimistic style—broad, loose brushstrokes of vibrant color with frequent use of white space and rare use of black—with only occasional references to his morbid themes. With more income, Munch was able to buy several properties giving him new vistas for his art and he was finally able to provide for his family.
The outbreak of World War I found Munch with divided loyalties, as he stated, “All my friends are German but it is France that I love.” In the 1930s, his German patrons, many Jewish, lost their fortunes and some their lives during the rise of the Nazi movement.
Munch found Norwegian printers to substitute for the Germans who had been printing his graphic work. Given his poor health history, during 1918 Munch felt himself lucky to have survived a bout of the Spanish Flu, the worldwide pandemic of that year.
Munch spent most of his last two decades in solitude at his nearly self-sufficient estate in Ekely, at Skøyen, Oslo. Many of his late paintings celebrate farm life, including several in which he used his work horse “Rousseau” as a model. Without any effort, Munch attracted a steady stream of female models, whom he painted as the subjects of numerous nude paintings.
He likely had sexual relations with some of them. Munch occasionally left his home to paint murals on commission, including those done for the Freia chocolate factory.
To the end of his life, Munch continued to paint unsparing self-portraits, adding to his self-searching cycle of his life and his unflinching series of takes on his emotional and physical states. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis labeled Munch’s work “degenerate art” (along with that of Picasso, Paul Klee, Matisse, Gauguin and many other modern artists) and removed his 82 works from German museums.
Adolf Hitler announced in 1937, “For all we care, those prehistoric Stone Age culture barbarians and art-stutterers can return to the caves of their ancestors and there can apply their primitive international scratching.”
In 1940, the Germans invaded Norway and the Nazi party took over the government. Munch was 76 years old. With nearly an entire collection of his art in the second floor of his house, Munch lived in fear of a Nazi confiscation. Seventy-one of the paintings previously taken by the Nazis had been returned to Norway through purchase by collectors (the other eleven were never recovered), including The Scream and The Sick Child, and they too were hidden from the Nazis.
Munch died in his house at Ekely near Oslo on 23 January 1944, about a month after his 80th birthday. His Nazi-orchestrated funeral suggested to Norwegians that he was a Nazi sympathizer, a kind of appropriation of the independent artist. The city of Oslo bought the Ekely estate from Munch’s heirs in 1946; his house was demolished in May 1960.