The Sick Child

  • Artist: Edvard Munch
  • Creation date: Mellom 1885 og 1886
  • Object type: Painting

On display: Room 060 The Collection Exhibition - Edvard Munch


Edvard Munch used a simple composition for this sickbed scene, placing the main image in the centre and to the fore of the pictorial space. The sparseness of the details serves to highlight certain prominent elements, such as the girl’s head against the white pillow, the woman’s bent neck, and the point of contact between the two. Hailed as Edvard Munch’s breakthrough work, The Sick Child evinces his turn toward a more personal, expressive, and emotionally charged form of art. The painting is often seen in connection with Munch’s loss of his one-year-older sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis in 1877. Dying children were moreover a common subject among the artists of the period.

The picture’s style sets it apart from the more naturally lit, true-to-life realism favoured by Munch’s contemporaries. Thick layers of paint alternate with thin, trickling stripes, pastose brushstrokes with scratches and abrasions. The work was created over a long span of time. The picture’s physical surface draws attention to itself; it is as though Munch stopped working right in the middle of the creative process. It was with this painting that Munch revealed himself to be the master of the “unfinished” work of art.

The Sick Child was first shown at the Autumn Exhibition in 1886, under the title Study, and with its unconventional form the painting was met with both outrage and acclaim. It became a “scandalous success”, and has ever since remained one of Munch’s best known and most discussed works. Munch would later paint five further versions of this scene, one of which Olaf Schou donated to the National Gallery in 1909. In 1931 this later version was exchanged for Munch’s original version from 1885–86.

Text: Øystein Ustvedt

From "Edvard Munch in the National Museum", Nasjonalmuseet 2008, ISBN 978-82-8154-035-54


Edvard Munch

Visual artist, Painter, Graphic artist, Photographer, Drawing artist

Born 12.12.1863 in Løten, Hedmark, death 23.01.1944 in Oslo

Edvard Munch worked as an artist for over sixty years. He was creative, ambitious and hardworking. He produced nearly two thousand paintings, hundreds of graphic motifs and thousands of drawings. In addition, he wrote poems, prose and diaries. The Scream, Madonna, Death in the Sickroom and the other symbolist works from the 1890s have made him one of the most famous artists of our time.

"Don't become an artist!"

Edvard wanted to become an artist early on, and there was no doubt that he had talent. But his father refused to allow him to follow his dream, so Edvard began studying engineering. But already after one year he chose to defy his father, and switched from engineering college to the Norwegian National Academy of Craft and Art Industry in Kristiania, now Oslo.

A talented and provocative bohemian

It was obvious to everyone in the Norwegian art community that the young man showed rare talent. In 1883, at the age of 20, he debuted at Høstutstillingen (The Autumn Exhibition). In 1886, Munch became acquainted with author and anarchist Hans Jæger, a leading figure in the Kristiania bohemian community. The bohemian community convinced Munch that the arts had to renew themselves to reach people and to have relevance in their lives. In the same year he exhibited the painting The Sick Child. This generated debate!

Courage led to breakthrough

Some acclaimed The Sick Child a work of genius, while others deemed it unfinished and unworthy of exhibition. Today it is considered to mark Munch's breakthrough. It was here that demonstrated the independence and willingness to break fresh ground.

From this point until his final brush strokes, his artistic practice can be summed up in just word: experimentation. Munch did not care about established "rules" for so-called good art. His techniques in both painting and graphics were innovative.

From people's emotional life to agriculture and landscape

Henrik Ibsen's plays about humanity's existential challenges inspired Munch. Themes such as death, love, sexuality, jealousy and anxiety were central to his early images. Some themes sprang from personal experience. For example, Death in the Sickroom and The Sick Child are linked to his memory of his mother and sister's illnesses and early deaths.

After 1910, Munch chose a quieter and secluded life. At his own farms at Ekely in Oslo and in Hvitsten, he found entirely new motifs, such as agriculture, working life and landscapes. Man in the Cabbage Field is a typical example from this period.

Work info