Edvard Munch was a Norwegian artist whose paintings and lithographs were not only highly controversial for his time, they were also steeped in color–which he became known for–and his own past, which was rife with the oppressive religious beliefs of his father.
Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, when he was just five years old. Left to care for five children with little help, Munch’s father, Christian, did what he could to keep the family afloat but often faced poverty head-on, and they were forced to move around a lot. Munch’s sister Johanne Sophie, also died of tuberculosis, and the loss of his favorite sibling can be felt in some of his artwork.
The Sick Child
Munch himself was often ill as a child and was taken out of school to be tutored as he recovered. While at home, he occupied himself by drawing his surroundings, which would also prove to be a recurring theme in his adult work.
As he got older and his work became more and more advanced, he won the attention of local art admirers who thought of his paintings as controversial. He held art shows and charged people to look at his work but hardly sold any pieces. In fact, he was loathe to part with any of his works, referring to them as his “children”. Through the years, Munch’s drinking and residual emotions from his difficult childhood led to an anxiety that never quite went away and which inspired what is arguably his most famous painting ever, “The Scream”. The work has been in headlines recently because of the enormous amount it fetched at auction: $119,922,500.
Munch once said the painting came about because of a profound experience he had:
“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, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”
The anxiety that plagued him for years was a key factor in the painting’s creation. Munch said, “For several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, ‘The Scream?’ I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.”
Munch spent most of his last years at his home in Oslo, where he painted mostly farm scenes and nudes. During WWII, many of his paintings were taken out of the museums they’d hung in for years and confiscated by Nazis, who denounced them as “degenerate art”. Munch had hidden a lot of his work by then, affording paintings–including “The Scream”–safety until Hitler’s regime was over. After his death in 1944, many of his works were donated to the city of Oslo, leading to the building of the Munch Museum at Toyen. Since then, several of his works have sold for record amounts at auction, both paintings and woodcuts.