The Dance of LifeDance of Life

  • Artist: Edvard Munch
  • Creation date: 1899–1900
  • Object type: Painting


Edvard Munch uses both texts and images to reflect on the relationship between man and woman, and on love, jealousy and eroticism. These themes are particularly prominent in the pictures he painted in the 1890s.

A group of people have gathered on a summer’s night to dance on a spacious, green field of grass. The reflection of the moon creates a romantic setting for the dancers. The idyllic scene evokes a sense of joie de vivre, but the motif also contains a deeply serious undertone. In The Dance of Life Munch has used dance as a metaphor for the romantic relationship between man and woman.

The foreground of the motif is dominated by three female figures. In the middle of the picture, a woman in a red dress is dancing closely with a man. Entranced by each other, they twirl their way into the dance of life. A young woman in white is regarding the dancing couple with curiosity. The woman in black, to the right of the couple, has a gloomy face and a sombre appearance. Could she be jealous? Behind her we can see another dancing couple, the man greedily clutching his partner. She appears to be resisting his overeager embrace. The expression on his face is grotesque. The faces of both men are mask-like and tinted slightly green. Several other couples are dancing in the background. They are painted with sweeping brushstrokes that add momentum and rhythm to the composition, in contrast to the figures standing in a row in the foreground.

The three women in The Dance of Life symbolise different aspects of one and the same woman. Munch had previously addressed a similar theme in 1894 in his painting The Woman in Three Stages. A note he wrote in 1894-95 can apply to both The Dance of Life and The Woman in Three Stages: “Woman who in her diversity is a Mystery to Man – Woman who is simultaneously Saint – Whore and unhappily devoted.”[1]

The Dance of Life was given a central position in Munch’s “Livsfrise” (“The Frieze of Life”), and was included in the influential exhibitions where the frieze was presented: Berlin in 1902, Leipzig in 1903, Kristiania in 1904 and Prague in 1905. In Berlin the picture was placed in a section titled “The Flowering and Withering of Love”. Among Munch’s contemporaries it was popular to create thematic series of works, also called friezes, and they often drew inspiration from the paintings of the Renaissance. The strong colours and clear colour fields also testify to the influence of Paul Gauguin and the Synthetism movement.

The Dance of Life was a gift from Olaf Schou to the National Museum’s collection in 1910. Munch signed and dated the painting twice, indicating that he began working on it in 1899 and completed it in 1900. It was first shown at an exhibition in 1900 in Dresden, where it was called Johannisnacht, the German name for Midsummer Eve. When it was exhibited in Kristiania in 1904, the painting was called The Dance of Life. Munch painted several variations and versions of it. Dancing couples appear in both “Lindefrisen” (“The Linde Frieze”) (1904) and “Freiafrisen” (“The Freia Frieze”) (1922). The painting Dans på stranden (Dance on the Shore) (1899-1900), which Munch painted just before The Dance of Life, is also part of the “The Frieze of Life”.


  • Ragna Stang, Edvard Munch. Mennesket og kunstneren (Edvard Munch. The Man and the Artist) (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1977), p. 120
  • Arne Eggum, Edvard Munch. Malerier og studier (Edvard Munch. Paintings and Studies) (Oslo: Stenersen forlag, 1995), p. 168
  • Mai Britt Guleng, “Livsfrisens fortellinger. Edvard Munchs bildeserier” (“The Narratives of The Frieze of Life. Edvard Munch’s Series of Pictures”), in Edvard Munch 1863-1944, National Museum, Oslo, pp. 128-139
  • Gerd Woll, Edvard Munch. Samlede malerier. Catalogue raisonné (Edvard Munch. Collected Paintings, Catalogue Raisonné), Oslo, 2008
  • [1] eMunch, Edvard Munch’s texts, Digital Archive, MM N 30, Munch Museum. 


Edvard Munch


Born 1863 in Løten, Hedmark, death 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

Creation date:
Other titles:
Livets dans (NOR)
Object type:
Materials and techniques:
Olje på lerret
  • Width: 191 cm
  • Height: 125 cm
Gave fra Olaf Schou 1910
Inventory no.:
Cataloguing level:
Single object
Owner and collection:
Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, The Fine Art Collections
Børre Høstland/Høstland, Børre