Edvard Munch: Life And Works

Edvard Munch: life and works

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.

The Norwegian painter and graphic artist Edvard Munch illustrated man’s emotional life in love and death. His art was a major influence of the expressionist movement, in which where artists sought to give rise to emotional responses.


Edvard Munch biography

Edvard Munch art

Edvard Munch facts

Edvard Munch paintings

Edvard Munch quotes

Edvard Munch biography

Early life

Born on December 12, 1863, in Loieten, near Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway, Edvard Munch was the son of a military doctor. Childhood experiences with death and sickness—both his mother and sister died of tuberculosis (an often-fatal disease that attacks the lungs and bones)—greatly influenced his emotional and intellectual development. This and his father’s fanatic Christianity led Munch to view his life as dominated by the “twin black angels of insanity and disease.”

After studying engineering, Munch soon turned to art. In 1880 Munch began to study art and joined the realist painters (school of painters who sought to depict their subjects as realistically as possible) and writers of the Kristiania bohemian (fashionable and unconventional) circle. His ideas were strongly influenced at this time by the writer Hans Jaeger (1854–1910), who sought to establish an ideal society based on materialist atheism (not believing in material wealth) and free love. Jaeger’s hopeless love affair with the wife of Christian Krohg, leader of the bohemian painters, and Munch’s own brief affairs caused him to intensify the connection he saw between women, love, and death.

Munch’s paintings during the 1880s were dominated by his desire to use the artistic vocabulary of realism to create subjective content, or content open to interpretation of the viewer. His Sick Child (1885–1886), which used a motif (dominant theme) popular among Norwegian realist artists, created through color a mood of depression that served as a memorial to his dead sister. Because of universal critical rejection, Munch turned briefly to a more mainstream style, and through the large painting Spring (1889), a more academic version of the Sick Child, he obtained state support for study in France.

A change

After studying briefly at a Parisian art school, Munch began to explore the possibilities made available by the French postimpressionists, a movement that looked to push impressionism beyond its limitations. The death of his father in 1889 caused a major spiritual crisis, and he soon rejected Jaeger’s philosophy. Munch’s Night in St. Cloud (1890) embodied a renewed interest in spiritual content; this painting served as a memorial to his father by presenting the artist’s dejected state of mind. He summarized his intentions, saying “I paint not what I see, but what I saw,” and identified his paintings as “symbolism: nature viewed through a temperament” (manner of thinking). Both statements accent the transformation of nature as the artist experienced it.
In 1892 the Berlin Artists’ Association, an official organization consisting primarily of German academic artists, invited Munch to exhibit in Berlin, Germany. His paintings created a major scandal in Germany’s artistic capital, and the exhibition was closed. But Munch used the publicity to arrange other exhibitions and sell paintings; his art prospered and he decided to stay in Germany. He also began work on a series of paintings later entitled the Frieze of Life, which concentrated on the themes of love, anxiety, and death.

To make his work accessible to a larger public, Munch began making prints (works of art that could be easily copied) in 1894. Motifs for his prints were usually derived from his paintings, particularly the Frieze. The Frieze also served as the inspiration for the paintings he made for Max Linde (1904), Max Reinhardt’s Kammerspielhaus (1907), and the Freia Chocolate Factory in Oslo (1922).

Later years

Following a nervous breakdown, Munch entered a hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1908. In the lithograph (a type of print) series Alpha and Omega he depicted his love affairs and his relationship to friends and enemies. In 1909 he returned to Norway to lead an isolated life. He sought new artistic motifs in the Norwegian landscape and in the activities of farmers and laborers. A more optimistic view of life briefly replaced his former anxiety, and this new life view attained monumental expression in the murals of the Oslo University Aula (1911–1914).

During World War I (1914–18), when Germany led forces against the forces of much of Europe and the United States, Munch returned to his earlier motifs of love and death. Symbolic paintings and prints appeared side by side with stylized studies of landscapes and nudes during the 1920s. As a major project, never completed, he began to illustrate Henrik Ibsen’s (1828–1906) plays. During his last years, plagued by partial blindness, Munch edited the diaries written in his youth and painted harsh self-portraits and memories of his earlier life. He died in Ekely outside Oslo on January 23, 1944.

Edvard Munch art

Edvard Munch was a prolific yet perpetually troubled artist preoccupied with matters of human mortality such as chronic illness, sexual liberation, and religious aspiration. He expressed these obsessions through works of intense color, semi-abstraction, and mysterious subject matter. Following the great triumph of French Impressionism, Munch took up the more graphic, symbolist sensibility of the influential Paul Gauguin, and in turn became one of the most controversial and eventually renowned artists among a new generation of continental Expressionist and Symbolist painters. Munch came of age in the first decade of the 20th century, during the peak of the Art Nouveau movement and its characteristic focus on all things organic, evolutionary and mysteriously instinctual. In keeping with these motifs, but moving decidedly away from their decorative applications, Munch came to treat the visible as though it were a window into a not fully formed, if not fundamentally disturbing, human psychology.

Key Ideas

  • Edvard Munch grew up in a household periodically beset by life-threatening illnesses and the premature deaths of his mother and sister, all of which was explained by Munch’s father, a Christian fundamentalist, as acts of divine punishment. This powerful matrix of chance tragic events and their fatalistic interpretation left a lifelong impression on the young artist, and contributed decisively to his eventual preoccupation with themes of anxiety, emotional suffering, and human vulnerability.
  • Munch intended for his intense colors, semi-abstraction and mysterious, often open-ended themes to function as symbols of universal significance. Thus his drawings, paintings, and prints take on the quality of psychological talismans: having originated in Munch’s personal experiences, they nonetheless bear the power to express, and perhaps alleviate, any viewer’s own emotional or psychological condition.
  • The frequent preoccupation in Munch’s work with sexual subject matter issues from both the artist’s bohemian valuation of sex as a tool for emotional and physical liberation from social conformity as well as his contemporaries’ fascination with sexual experience as a window onto the subliminal, sometimes darker facets of human psychology.
    In a sense similar to his near-contemporary, Vincent van Gogh, Munch strove to record a kind of marriage between the subject as observed in the world around him and his own psychological, emotional and/or spiritual perception.

The Scream (1893)

The Scream

The significance of Munch’s The Scream within the annals of modern art cannot be overstated. It stands among an exclusive group, including Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and Matisse’s Red Studio, comprising the quintessential works of modernist experiment and lasting innovation. The fluidity of Munch’s lateral and vertical brushwork echoes the sky and clouds in Starry Night, yet one may also find the aesthetic elements of Fauvism, Expressionism, and perhaps even Surrealism arising from this same surface.

The setting of The Scream was suggested to the artist by a walk along a road overlooking the city of Oslo, apparently upon Munch’s arrival at, or departure from, a mental hospital where his sister, Laura Catherine, had been interned. It is unknown whether the artist observed an actual person in anguish, but this seems unlikely; as Munch later recalled, “I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence … shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”

This is one of two painted versions of The Scream that Munch rendered around the turn of the 20th century; the other (ca. 1910) is currently in the collections of the Munch Museum, Oslo. In addition to these painted versions, there is a version in pastel and a lithograph.
Oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard – The National Gallery, Oslo

The Sick Child (1885-86, 1907)

The Sick Child (1885-86, 1907)

Artwork description & Analysis: The Sick Child is one of Munch’s earliest works, considered by the artist “a breakthrough” for setting the tone for his early career in which death, loss, anxiety, madness, and the preoccupations of a troubled soul were his chief subject matter. Devoted to his deceased sister, Johanne Sophie, the painting depicts the bedridden fifteen-year-old with a grieving woman beside her, the latter probably a representation of Munch’s mother who had preceded Sophie in death, also from tuberculosis, eleven years prior. The rough brushstrokes, scratched surface and melancholic tones of this painting all reveal a highly personal memorial. The work was highly criticized for its “unfinish” when first exhibited, but nonetheless championed by Munch’s spiritual mentor, Hans Jæger, as a masterful achievement.
Oil on canvas – Tate Gallery, London

Night in St. Cloud (1890)

Night in St. Cloud (1890)

Artwork description & Analysis: If the Sick Child is a loving tribute to Munch’s favorite sister, Johanne Sophie, Night in St. Cloud is a far more complex and darker memorial to the artist’s father who had died the previous year. Created not long after Munch’s arrival in Paris, Night in St. Cloud reveals the immediate influence of Post-Impressionists Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, whose many portraits of solitary figures or empty rooms inform this canvas. Munch’s tribute to his father is composed of a darkened, seemingly hallowed room bathed in crepuscular light, indeed a space occupied only by shadows and stillness. The rendition is befitting of their tense relationship. In other paintings that focus on death, Munch made the subject physically present; however, in this instance, Munch’s father’s passing evokes only a sense of cool abandon. Notably, this work presages Pablo Picasso’s Blue period.
Oil on canvas – The National Gallery, Oslo

Madonna (1894-95)

Madonna (1894-95)

Artwork description & Analysis: Contemporary with The Scream, Munch’s Madonna is rendered with softer brushstrokes and comparatively subdued pigments. Munch depicts the Virgin Mary in a manner that defies all preceding “historical” representations – from Renaissance-era Naturalism to 19th-century Realism – of the chaste mother of Jesus Christ. With a sense of modesty conveyed only by her closed eyes, the nude appears to be in the act of lovemaking, her body subtly contorting and bending towards a nondescript light. Indeed, Munch’s Madonna may very well be a modernist, if irreverent depiction of the Immaculate Conception. The red halo upon the Madonna’s head, as opposed to the customary white or golden ring, indicates a ruling passion befitting Baroque-era renditions of the subject, minus any measure of religious discretion. While the artist himself never fully succumbed to his father’s religious fervor and teachings, this work clearly suggests Munch’s constant wrangling over the exact nature of his own spirituality.
Oil on canvas – The National Gallery, Oslo

Puberty (1894-95)

NOR Pubertet, ENG Puberty

Artwork description & Analysis: Agony, anxiety and loss are constant themes throughout Munch’s oeuvre, yet perhaps nowhere do they come together as powerfully as in Munch’s Puberty, a portrait of adolescence and isolation. The lone and guarded female figure symbolizes a state of sexual depression and frustration – both of which plagued the artist himself throughout his life while the girl, although apparently shy (to judge by her posture), indicates quite the opposite by way of her frank stare. The looming shadow behind the figure hints at the birth of an ominous and sentient creature, perhaps one haunting her room, if indeed it is not her own dawning persona. The aesthetic qualities of Post-Impressionism are still very much present in Munch’s work at this time, but what sets his work apart is the powerful element of symbolism. Munch is painting not necessarily what he sees, but what he feels in front of him. Munch usually painted, in fact, from imagination rather than from life, but here the uncharacteristic detailing of the girl’s body – in particular the collar bone is considered by many evidence that, at least in this instance, Munch resorted to the use of a live model.
Oil on canvas – National Gallery, Oslo

Spring Ploughing (1918)

Spring Ploughing (1918)

Artwork description & Analysis: In the years following Munch’s hospital stay the artist removed himself from the lifestyle of carousing and heavy drinking and devoted his days to his art and to the countryside of his homeland. While at one time the artist referred to his paintings as “my children,” by this time he began referring to them as “my children with nature.” This new-found inspiration, in the form of farm hands, animals, and the Norwegian landscape, took Munch’s art in an entirely new direction, one celebrating life and work, rather than anxiety and loss. In Spring Ploughing, one can see the inspiration Munch took from the much younger Franz Marc – whose Expressionist paintings were originally inspired by Munch – who had a penchant for painting animals in their natural surroundings. Munch’s period of creating truly original Symbolist-cum-Expressionist works had since passed, indicated by similar works of this time and their innocent subject matter. Nevertheless, the maturity of this painting’s brushwork and palette clearly demonstrate the hand of a master.
Oil on canvas – Munch Museum, Oslo

Edvard Munch facts

  • He won a two-year state scholarship in 1889 to study in Paris under French painter Léon Bonnat.
  • The scream is Munch’s most recognizable work of art. It was renamed The Cry in 1893. It was sold in the price of $119 million in 2012. It broke a new record.
  • The Sick Child was his first work when he moved back to Oslo. He finished this work in 1886. The painting depicts the death of his sister.
  • The outbreak of the First World War left Munch with divided loyalties, which he summed up as follows: “All my friends are German but it is France that I love.”
  • In 1900s, Munch was not able to control his several drinking problem and mental illness. He had to continually check his condition in a private sanitarium. Then he decided to live in an isolation in Ekely. It is located in Oslo, Norway. He liked to paint landscape there. Munch died on 23 January 1944, about a month after his eightieth birthday.
  • Munch wrote the epitaph: “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”
  • The Munch museum in Oslo accomodates a collection of approximately 1,100 paintings, 4,500 drawings, and 18,000 prints, the broadest collection of his works in the world.
  • After the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China ended, Munch was the first Western artist to have his pictures exhibited at the National Gallery in Beijing.
  • Munch appears on the Norwegian 1,000 Kroner note along with pictures inspired by his artwork.


Edvard Munch quotes

By painting colors and lines and forms seen in quickened mood I was seeking to make this mood vibrate as a phonograph does. This was the origin of the paintings in The Frieze of Life. 

To die is as if one’s eyes had been put out and one cannot see anything any more. Perhaps it is like being shut in a cellar. One is abandoned by all. They have slammed the door and are gone. One does not see anything and notices only the damp smell of putrefaction.

No longer shall I paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. I will paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love.

Painting picture by picture, I followed the impressions my eye took in at heightened moments. I painted only memories, adding nothing, no details that I did not see. Hence the simplicity of the paintings, their emptiness.

I find it difficult to imagine an afterlife, such as Christians, or at any rate many religious people, conceive it, believing that the conversations with relatives and friends interrupted here on earth will be continued in the hereafter.

Nature is not only all that is visible to the eye… it also includes the inner pictures of the soul.

I learned early about the misery and dangers of life, and about the afterlife, about the external punishment which awaited the children of sin in Hell.

I find it difficult to imagine an afterlife, such as Christians, or at any rate many religious people, conceive it, believing that the conversations with relatives and friends interrupted here on earth will be continued in the hereafter.

I have no fear of photography as long as it cannot be used in heaven and in hell. 

From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity. 

I build a kind of wall between myself and t he model so that I can paint in peace behind it. Otherwise, she might say something that confuses and distracts me.

For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.

References and useful Resources

  1. notablebiographies.com
  2. theartstory.org
  3. edvardmunch.org
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