The Sick Child, 1885−86

Edvard Munch experienced both success and scandal with the breakthrough The sick child.

A sickbed. The composition is simple, with the main motif placed centrally and in the foreground of the picture. Details are toned down to allow certain conspicuous elements to stand out: the girl’s head against the white pillow, the bent neck of the woman and the point of contact between the two. The painting is generally regarded as Edvard Munch’s breakthrough, demonstrating his turn towards a more personal and emotionally-charged form of expression. The picture is often associated with the loss of his elder sister, Sophie, who died of tuberculosis in 1877. Sick girls and dying children were, moreover, a popular subject for many of the more realistically-oriented painters of the period.

Farewell to realism

Munch himself described the picture as his farewell to realism. With its materiality and sketchy style it stands out from the more crystalclear, true-to-life realism that dominated among Munch’s contemporaries. Thickly applied layers of paint occur alongside thin, trickling stripes, pastose brushstrokes with scratch marks and surface abrasions. Attention is drawn to the picture’s physical surface and its means of production. It appears sketchy and unfinished, as if the artist had halted work in the midst of the creative process. Here Munch makes an earnest bid to become master of the “unfinished” artwork.

Scandal and success

The work was first shown at the National Annual Autumn Exhibition in 1886, although on that occasion it bore the title Study. The painting’s unconventional aspects prompted outrage and indignation, although it also attracted a degree of approval. The scandal ensured the painting’s success and its enduring position as one of the best known and most discussed of Munch’s works. In due course he painted no less than six versions of the motif. Initially the National Gallery acquired a later version, thanks to a bequest from Olaf Schou in 1909. But in 1931 this was exchanged for Munch’s first version of the painting from 1885–86. Schou’s picture is now in the Göteborg Museum of Art.

Explore The Sick Child in the National Museum digital collection