Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944) was one of the most prominent Symbolists and Expressionists of his time. Losing both his sister and mother to tuberculosis at a young age, his art served as an outlet for his subsequent fear and anxiety. Here, we profile 11 of Munch’s most haunting masterpieces, all of which illustrate the artist’s emotive perception of human mortality.
The Scream is Edvard Munch’s most iconic painting, depicting a horrified man holding his ears beneath a fiery sunset. The image was supposedly inspired by a vision the artist had on a walk with two friends, and between 1893 and 1910, he produced two oil paintings as well as two pastels depicting that vision. He expressed his experience in poetry on the frame of his pastel from 1895: “I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”
Evening on Karl Johan
In 1891, Munch completed his brightly-colored Spring Day on Karl Johan Street. This joyful portrayal of Karl Johan Street is the complete opposite of Munch’s image of the street at night, which was finished in 1892. The sun has set, and a group of mourning pedestrians seem to be walking away from a funeral or some kind of dreadful event. The way this image so strongly contrasts the mood of Munch’s illustration of Karl Johan in the day adds a chilling element to the anonymous, ghostly figures.
Painted in 1894, Anxiety depicts sorrowful characters not unlike The Scream and Evening on Karl Johan. A seemingly familiar bridge over a body of water under a blood-red sky closely resembles the setting of The Scream. The ghost-like figures in the forefront with mourning attire and downtrodden facial expressions resemble the same group in Evening on Karl Johan.
The love triangle was a common theme in Munch’s work, depicted in various capacities throughout 11 different paintings. The first Jealousy was painted in 1895 and the last was made in the 1930s; and though the settings aren’t the same, each emotive painting portrays a jealous man looking, panicked, at the viewer while a loving couple embraces in the background. The inspiration for this series came from Munch’s and a colleague’s desire for the same woman. The artists decided to collaborate and each made his own paintings surrounding the theme of jealousy. Here, Munch pictures himself with the woman, leaving her former lover in a state of jealousy.
The Death of Marat
One of the most famous images of the French Revolution is influential Neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David’s painting titled Death of Marat. It shows the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat dying in a bathtub after being murdered by Charlotte Corday, and it was painted in 1793, just months after the incident. Edvard Munch is among several artists who were inspired by the masterpiece, and created their own version of Marat’s death. His 1907 oil painting shows not only a male figure dying on a bloody bed, but also includes a portrayal of the woman responsible. His recreation depicts himself as Marat and his lover Tulla Larsen as the murderess, both naked and disturbingly still.
The Sick Child
Edvard Munch completed six versions of The Sick Child between 1885 and 1926. The image shows a weak, pale young girl in bed with an older woman, believed to be her aunt, sitting in grief by her side. Munch’s sister Johanne Sophie died of tuberculosis at the age of 15, which is what he references and returns to in these paintings. He himself also almost died of the infectious disease, and it’s believed that the image records his despair as well as guilt that he was the one to survive instead of his sister.
The Dance of Life
The Dance of Life shows couples dancing under the moon on a summer’s evening. The focus point of the painting is the couple in the middle, believed to be Munch and the love of his life, Tulla Larsen. The image as a whole tells a story of human experience, and the two women facing the couple on each side represent the different stages of a woman’s life. The one on the left, reaching for the flower in her white dress, represents child-like innocence looking forward, and the woman in dark colors shows a mature figure looking back at the couple mournfully. This is a great example of the painter’s emotional sensibility and somewhat melancholic outlook on life and love.
This sad, emotional image was painted in 1896. It illustrates love, loss and heartbreak, showing a young man leaning against a tree and holding his heart with a faceless, illuminated woman in the background. The image clearly represents separated lovers, but because the woman is presented as an angelic figure floating away, it possibly symbolizes that though the man’s love is gone, the memories of her and of the past will always haunt him.
Edvard Munch created Puberty between 1894 and 1895. It illustrates a young naked girl just entering the age of puberty and is one of his most controversial images. Because the girl’s body is painted in such detail, many believe this is an image of a live model. The girl sits on the bed shyly, with her legs closed and arms crossed, covering herself, perhaps representative of repressed sexuality. A dark shadow lurks beside the girl, possibly symbolic of her anxiety and fear surrounding growing up.
This image is one of the most controversial and shocking images in the history of European art, and also one of Munch’s most reproduced and coveted pieces. It is part of his 20-piece series called The Frieze of Life and was originally called Love and Pain. Munch made four versions of this image and always insisted it was nothing more than a woman comforting a man, but once released to the public in 1894, many saw it as a man locked in a red-headed vampire’s embrace, linking it to sado-masochism, Munch’s relationships with prostitutes…and some even thought of it as a fantasy of his dead sister. This is how the image took on the name Vampire, which is what it still goes by today.
Workers on Their Way Home
Workers on Their Way Home was painted by Munch during 1913 and 1914, and is one of his many bone-chilling portrayals of life from a perspective of suffering, grief and melancholy. He powerfully depicts a flood of thin, exhausted working class men headed home from factories after a day’s work. The dark mood, worn-down facial expressions and transparency of the men’s feet on the ground show them as almost ghosts or zombie-likes figures, unhappily floating in and out from sunrise to sunset.