Death in the Sickroom

  • Artist: Edvard Munch
  • Creation date: (1893)
  • Object type: Painting

On display: Room 060 The Collection Exhibition - Edvard Munch


The picture shows what we can assume to be the artist’s family grouped around his sister Sophie, who died in 1877. She is sitting in a chair with her back to us. To the right stands an aunt, Karen Bjølstad, who moved in with the family to take care of the children and the household after the mother died of tuberculosis in 1868. In the background stands the father, the doctor Christian Munch, with his hands clasped as if in prayer. Near the centre of the picture is a male figure, probably Edvard, in quarter-face. Sister Laura is sitting in the foreground with her hands in her lap, while the third sister, Inger, stands staring straight at us. The male figure to the left is generally identified as Edvard’s younger brother Andreas. In Death in the Sick-Room there is no physical contact between the people, except for the hand that aunt Karen has laid on the back of the chair in which the invalid sits.

The subject of sickness was so widespread in the late 1800s that those years have been called the “pillow period” in Scandinavian painting. “Sickness, madness and death were the black angels who watched over my cradle,” Munch wrote.

“I paint not what I see, but what I saw,” Munch once said about his works. This is a situation recalled from several years earlier, to which he returned in the 1890s. The scene is strictly composed, and excludes anything irrelevant to the theme. The dark clothes and the noxious green of the bedroom walls intensify the mood of discomfort.

The painting was given to the National Gallery by Olaf Schou in 1910.

Text: Frode Haverkamp

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