Eilert Adelsteen Norman – The Norwegian Fjord painter.

If you are a lover of landscape paintings. If you have ever been seduced by the dramatic beauty nature offers up. If you have ever dreamt about cruising along a Norwegian fjord then this blog is especially for you. Our guide to the mesmerising beauty of nature is the nineteenth-century Norwegian landscape painter Eilert Adelsteen Normann.

Eilert Adelsteen Normann as a Young Man (possibly a self-portrait)

Eilert Adelsteen Normann was born on May 1st 1848 in the northern Norwegian coastal town of Bodin which lies on a peninsular between the great fjords of Vestfjorden and Saltfjorden. It is at the heart of a rough mountainous area full of beauty but only readily reachable by sea. Eilert Adelsteen was the second of six children, having four brothers and a sister. His father was Johan Normann, a merchant and hunting skipper as well as being a part-time farmer. His mother was Catharina Weitgan, the daughter of a shoe and umbrella maker.

The Tanks senior secondary school at Bergen

When Adelsteen was twelve years old he was sent to school in the city of Trondheim which was over four hundred miles from his home. He later transferred to the Tanks Videregående Skole, a senior secondary school which had just opened in new premises in Bergen five years earlier. In 1869, when Adelsteen was twenty-one-years-old, tragedy struck the family when his eldest brother was killed at sea in a shipping accident in the Bay of Biscay. Adelsteen was now the oldest of his siblings and it fell on his shoulders to take up the mantle of heir to his father’s trading business which was based on the island of Vågøya. It was for this reason that he went to Copenhagen to study business practices which would stand him good stead when the time came to run the family business.

Trollfjord in Lofoten near Vesterålen by Adelsteen Normann

I have not been able to find out what happened in Copenhagen but all I know is that in that same year he arrived there to study business, 1869, he left and travelled to Düsseldorf and enrolled on a three-year course at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf where he studied under Andreas Müller and later Albert Flamm and Eugen Dücker, the Baltic German romanticist painter, famed for his landscape and marine works.

Seashore at Tiskre by Eugen Ducker (1866)

Dücker headed up the landscape class at the Academy. Adelsteen Normann became part of the Düsseldorf School of Painting. The paintings of this School were typified by delicate and detailed landscapes, that were sometimes imaginary and often focused on a religious or allegorical story with a landscape setting.

From Hardanger by Adelsteen Normann

In 1872, despite only having studied art for three years at the Düsseldorf Academy Normann exhibited some of his landscape paintings, featuring Norwegian fjords, at an exhibition in Düsseldorf and some were purchased by the Düsseldorf Art Association. More were bought up by the art associations of Lubeck and Leipzig. In June 1872 he exhibited and sold more of his work at the Nordic Industrial and Art Exhibition in Copenhagen which was held between June and November. The Danish-Prussian War of 1864 was over, and the conservative Hojre political party had control of the Danish parliament and they wanted to join the world’s fair movement to show off the country’s progress in agricultural (which had suffered during recent years) industrial, and the arts. Visitors attending the Exhibition during the nearly five-month run was over six hundred thousand and once again many of Normann’s paintings of the Norwegian fjords were sold.

The Steamship by Adelsteen Norman

From 1869 until Adelsteen Normann lived in Germany but he and his family would return most summers to Western Norway, the northernmost parts of Nordland and the rugged area around Lyngen, a municipality in Troms county, where he would find more and more spectacular landscapes to paint. He would sketch and photograph the scenery and return to his studio in Dusseldorf and Berlin to complete the paintings.

A dragon style house on the Sognefjord

Adelsteen Normann left Dusseldorf in 1883 and went to live in Berlin. He continued to return each summer to Norway and in 1890, he bought a plot of land in Sjøtun,  an area nestling on the edge of Kattfjord, and set amongst the spectacular mountains on the island of Kvaløya.  This idyllic location was only 40 minutes from Tromsø and had a spectacular view overlooking the Sognefjord. The following year he then purchased his house which arrived in pre-fabricated kit form from a company in Trondheim who had their men erect the structure. It was a “dragon style” house with lots of wood carvings and dragon figures. Normann’s dragon-style villa  was the first to be built by an artist in this particular style, and it became the prototype for the ones that came later. These houses in Balestrand became a special talking point of the town and were to become very important for the town’s tourism and so have always been well preserved. Normann’s summer house at Balestrand remained with his heirs until 1934.

Norwegian fjord landscape by Hans Dahl

During his time at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf Normann became friendly with fellow student Hans Dahl, a fellow Norwegian. Dahl’s Norwegian landscapes depicting the mountains and fjords were similar to Normann’s works but Dahl nearly always included figures in his landscapes.

Villa Strandheim

It was Adelsteen Normann who advised Dahl to build a villa in Balestrand and three years after Normann’s own residence was completed, Dahl had his own erected. It was called Villa Strandheim.

Kaiser Wilhelm II (left) with Hans Dah (centre) l in the garden of Villa Strandheim

Hans Dahl and Adelsteen Normann were close friends of Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany. Like Normann, Dahl returned to Balestrand from Germany each summer and Dahl organised large garden parties at Villa Strandheim. It was here that the Emperor was a regular guest. In 1910 the Dahl’s son Hans Andreas Dahl built a studio near his father’s villa.

Northern Norway fishing village by Eilert Adelsteen Normann (1880)

Whilst living in Germany, Normann married Catharina Hubertine Weitgan who came from the Rheinland. The couple had 4 children: Emma, Otto, Olga and Walter. When Catharina died in 1911, sixty-three-year-old Normann re-married that same year. His second wife was Luise Rostalski, who was thirty-five-years younger than her husband. Together they had a son called Adelsteen.

Sunset over the Fjord by Adelsteen Normann

Normann exhibited his works in a number of venues in Europe including the important Salon de Paris from as early as 1882. His works earned a ‘Mention Honorable’ in the 1884 Salon and he was awarded a bronze medal in 1889. In Berlin Normann became well-known both as an artist and as a board member of the Verein Berliner Künstler and he established a school for painters.

Evening. Melancholy, by Edvard Munch (1891). Oil, pencil and crayon on canvas.

During his annual visit back to Norway in 1891, Normann took the opportunity to exhibit some of his fjord landscapes in Oslo, at the Kristiania Art Society, at the same time that the young Edvard Munch was exhibiting some of his paintings in the city. including his work, Evening. Melancholy. Normann was so impressed that in 1892, on behalf of the Verein Berliner Künstler (Society of Berlin Artists), he invited Edvard Munch to present his work at the Society’s November exhibition. Twenty-eight-year-old Munch felt flattered by Normann’s invite and agreed to come. He felt honoured to put his work before famous and established artists and hopefully his work would be seen by more sophisticated and knowledgeable public in Berlin.

Evening on Karl Johan by Edvard Munch (1892)

Munch arrived in Berlin with more than fifty-five works. It was the Society’s first one-man exhibition. Munch and Normann collaborated in preparing the exhibition, which was held at the newly built Architektenhaus. Was the exhibition a success? No, in fact it was a disaster. It appears the Society was not ready for Munch’s Symbolist artistic style which some of the members hated. The society members either loved them or hated them. The majority of members described Munch’s images as being repugnant, ugly and mean, and they caused an outrage. The Verein (The Association of Berlin Artists) held an extraordinary meeting on November 11th, and in a vote of 120 to 105, it was decided to close the exhibition after just one week, leaving Munch perplexed as to why he had been invited in the first place. The row over the merit of Munch’s one-man exhibition and the scandal following the early closing of it caused a number of the younger Society members, who were not prepared to put up with such an insult to an invited guest, broke away from the traditionalist stance of the Verein and joined together to form what they termed a “free association for the organization of artistic exhibitions”. They organized an art exhibition in the spring of 1892 as Die Elf. They did not however leave the main Society, so as to ensure the opportunity to display their work at its future exhibitions.

The dispute regarding Munch and his artwork shattered the art society! So how did Munch look upon the disaster? In Arne Eggum’s 1984 book, Edvard Munch: Paintings, Sketches, and Studies, Munch was amused and was quoted as saying:

“…Never have I had such an amusing time—it’s incredible that something as innocent as painting should have created such a stir…”

August Strindberg by Edvard Munch (1892)

The exhibition went on to later showings in Düsseldorf and Cologne before returning to Berlin. During Munch’s four years in Berlin while fraternising with like-minded artists and writers, such as his close friend August Strindberg, at a bar called the Black Piglet, Munch created some of his major and best-known works, including The Scream, The Vampire and Madonna. The exhibition and the humiliating effect it had on the Verein Berliner Künstler was well documented at the time, but for Munch, it resulted in the start of his international fame.

Sognefjord by Adelsteen Normann

Adelsteen Normann was one of the favourite painters of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who loved his landscape works featuring the Norwegian fjords. Most of Normann’s paintings depicted Norwegian fjord landscapes as well as modern life in Norwegian fjord villages with steam-driven cargo ships and large tourist ships. Normann, through his landscape works, is credited with making Norwegian fjords a popular tourist destination, especially with the upper classes, who would also buy his paintings as a memento of their travels. In the early 1890s, whilst living in Berlin he was also doing good business selling his paintings to hotel owners

Fishing vessels on a Norwegian fjord by Adelsteen Norman

Adelsteen Normann was a regular exhibitor. He received recognition for his work and was awarded many medals and awards, for his paintings including the Prince of Wales Medal 1874, Médaille d’honneur at the Salon in 1884 and a gold medal in Lyon in 1889. In 1897, he was appointed Knight of the 1st Class of the St. Olav Order. He has many paintings in museums around the world as well as in private collections.

View of a Fjord by Adelsteen Normann

In his later life, Normann was afflicted with asthma and in 1917, on medical advice, he returned to Norway. Despite his illness he carried on painting. Unfortunately for Normann who was already suffering breathing problems due to his asthma he was ill equipped physically to withstand the Spanish flu epidemic which swept across Norway in 1918. In Norway the epidemic killed between 13,000-15,000 people, most of them during the autumn of 1918 and mostly from pneumonia or pulmonary complications.

Eilert Adelsteen Normann (1848 – 1918)

Adelsteen Norman died in Kristiania (Oslo) on December 26th 1918 aged 70. The urn containing his ashes was returned to the Stahnsdorfer Waldfriedhof, in Berlin.

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The Krohg Family. Part 2 – Oda Krohg the Bohemian Princess

 

Self Portrait by Oda Krohg (1892)

I start this second blog about the Krohg family by delving back in history…..

Christian Fredrik Jacob von Munthe af Morgenstierne was a descendent of Bredo Munthe of Bekkeskov, who on 19 December 1755 was ennobled under the name von Munthe af Morgenstierne. Christian married Anastasia Sergiewna Soltikoff, a Russian princess in 1836 and the couple went on to have six children. The second eldest was a daughter, Alexandra Cathrine Henriette von Munthe af Morgenstierne who was born on March 5th, 1838. On May 8th, 1857 in Christiania (Oslo), at the age of nineteen, she married Christian Carl Otto Lasson, a government attorney. Over the next seventeen years Alexandra gave birth to eleven children, the third of whom was a daughter, Othilia Pauline Christine Lasson who was born on June 11th, 1860. Othilia Lasson became known as Oda Lasson, and would eventually become Oda Krohg.

A subscriber to the Aftenposten by Oda Krohg (1887)

Oda Lasson was brought up in an intellectual bourgeois environment with artistic, especially musical interests. Hers was a large family, which consisted of her parents, eight sisters and two brothers. When she was twenty-one years old she married a businessman, Jørgen Engelhardt. The couple had two children, a daughter Sacha in 1882 and a son, Frederik in 1883. Oda and her husband split up shortly after the birth of their second child and she left the family home with her two children. However, it would be another five years before Oda and Jørgen were officially divorced.

Japanese Light by Oda Lasson (1886)

It was also around 1883 that Oda Lasson decided to follow her love of art and in January 1884 she enrolled at a private painting school for ladies in Christiania which was run by Christian Krohg and Erik Werenskiold. Before attending this school, she had had n0 formal art education, but she was a willing student and soon began to progress with her art. The first painting she exhibited was entitled Ved Christianiafjorden (japansk lykt) (At the Oslofjord (Japanese Light). This is now in the National Gallery of Oslo.

Portrait of Christian Krohg by Oda Krohg (1903)

A close relationship developed between Oda and her art tutor, Christian Krohg and soon they became lovers which culminated on August 8th, 1885, with the birth of their first child Nana. Christian and Oda finally married in 1888 after her divorce from Jørgen Engelhardt was finalised. The following June, her second child, Per, was born during Christian Krohg and her stay at their summer residence in the coastal resort of Åsgårdstrand, about 100 km south of Oslo.

Poor little one by Oda Krohg (c.1900)
Christian Krohg and his daughter Nana

It was through her liaison with Krohg that Oda became part of the Bohemian movement of Christiania (Oslo), known as the Kristiania-bohemen and Oda soon became referred to as the Bohemian Princess due to her maternal ancestors. This small but conspicuous group of young students, artists and writers living in the capital shared radical and incisively critical views on bourgeois society. This group of upper-class intellectuals, writers, and artists dealt with controversial issues like urban poverty, prostitution, and sexual bigotry.

Chinese Lantern by Oda Krohg (1889)

One such member was the artist Edvard Munch. One of the leading lights of this bohemian movement was Hans Jaeger, a one-time seaman, one-time philosophy student and part time government stenographer. He was a colourful and controversial figure who made himself spokesperson for free love during the early 1880’s and he strived to promote the importance of sexuality. The group wanted full sexual freedom between the sexes in the same social class – in practice the upper classes – and the abolition of the institution of marriage. Bizarrely, Jaeger wanted to establish a school for women, which among other things would educate them and make them conscious of their lusts and follow them, so that neither them nor the men would be robbed of their part of the wonders of life !!

Cover of Fra Kristiania-Bohêmen. A novel by Hans Jæger

Jaeger’s downfall came in 1885 with the publication of his novel Fra Kristiania-Bohêmen (From Christiania’s Bohemia). The novel which was set in Christiania, was about two men who lived in lodgings and spent their days drinking in cafés, discussing philosophy, literature, and society reforms. One of them ends his life by committing suicide, shooting himself after spending his last night with a prostitute. The book was immediately banned by the Ministry of Justice, and the police managed to confiscate most of the printed copies shortly after its publication. Jæger received a 60-day prison sentence for the infringement of modesty and public morals, and for blasphemy. He avoided part of the sentence by moving to Paris, where he spent most of the rest of his life.

Portrait of Hans Jaeger by Edvard Munch (1889)

Munch painted a portrait of Hans Jaeger in 1889. In the depiction we see Jaeger slouched on a sofa. He stares out at us through his spectacles. His facial expression is emotionless and there is a sense of aloofness. He is dressed in a tight-fitting overcoat and wears a wide-brimmed hat which is placed on his head at a jaunty angle. The light source is to the left and casts deep shadows creating flickers of red-violet, brown and blue green hues. For many years the painting remained in Munch’s possession and was shown in most of his exhibitions in the 1890s. In 1897 he offered it to the National Gallery in Oslo, which duly purchased it.

Oda Krohg and Jappe Nilssen, photo from 1891

Christian Krohg and Oda’s roles in the organisation may not be fully known but there are a couple of aspects of the Kristiania-bohemen group which had a part to play in their lives. The sexual freedom advocated by many in the group seemed to have an effect on Oda and Christian’s marriage as it was what is now often termed as, an “open marriage” and it is known that Oda, despite being married to Christian  had a number of lovers, including Hans Jaeger, the Norwegian writer and art historian, Jappe Nilssen and the playwright Gunnar Heiberg. In Jaeger’s 1893 novel Syk Kjærlihet (Diseased Love), he describes a love triangle where he was strongly in love with a woman who was to marry an artist. It is believed that Oda was the model for the woman, and the book depicted the relation between himself, Oda and Christian during the summer and autumn of 1888.

Another aspect of Hans Jaeger’s philosophy which influenced Christian Krohg was Jaeger’s support of prostitutes and how he believed that the reason women turned to prostitution was due to the State’s social system.

Madeleine by Christian Krohg (1883)

In 1883 Krohg produced a painting entitled Madeleine. In the depiction we see a bleak and bare bedroom. A young woman sits on a thin mattress on a simple iron bedstead. From the little clothes she is wearing and the unmade nature of the bedding we think she is just getting up. However, what is more telling is her demeanour. Her body droops forwards and her head is cast downwards supported by her left hand. We are not allowed to see her face. Is she ashamed? In her right hand she seems to be holding a mirror. Has she been viewing her image? Is she unhappy at what she sees? It is thought that Krohg is portraying her as a “fallen woman” who is engaged in prostitution. Maybe her demeanour is one of sadness at what she has just done and is unable to come to terms with the shame. Like most paintings that seem to have a message it is up to the viewer to ponder on the possible story behind the image.

The novel Albertine

In 1886 Krohg wrote a novel, Albertine. The novel is set in Norway’s capital, Christiania, and looks at the plight of an unmarried but spirited seamstress Albertine, who is seduced by a police officer and because of her financial desperation and lack of support from the authorities, is forced into prostitution. The book caused a stir and embarrassed the authorities resulting in its confiscation of all copies the day after its publication. In 1888 the Supreme Court of Norway upheld the ruling, and Krohg was sentenced to pay a fine of 100 kr. Krohg went on to make a number of paintings based on the book and the world of prostitution.

Albertine at the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room by Christian Krohg (1887)

Christian Krohg painted a number of pictures based on his novel.  In 1877 the most famous of these is his work entitled Albertine i politilægens venteværelse (Albertine at the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room) which is housed in the National Gallery in Oslo. The painting is set in a police station and depicts a number of women that have been arrested for being prostitutes. We see Albertine at the head of the queue at the door of the examination room where she will be examined by a doctor.  She is dressed in a simple plain costume and is wearing a headscarf, unlike the garish clothes worn by the other women, which were the normal adornment of the “street workers” of the time.

The public outcry following the confiscation of the book finally led to a partial de-criminalising of prostitution in Norway. The change in the Penal Code in 1902 did not signal that prostitution was to become allowed by society. It did however accept that the exchange of sex in one’s own home was now legal but maintained that loitering and procurement on the streets or in a public place would remain illegal and that women arrested for selling sex in public were to be entered into rehabilitation programmes. Ironically, the current law in Norway which bans purchase of sex and any money earned is illegal and yet such money is taxable!!!!
Krohg’s book, Albertine, was published again in 1921 without any murmurs from the authorities.

The Struggle for Existence by Christian Krohg (1889)

It was not just the plight of prostitutes that featured in Krohg’s paintings. He was very interested in the state of poverty in his own country and his painting The Struggle for Existence was one of his major projects and also one of his finest works. The setting for the scene is Oslo’s main thoroughfare, Karl Johan Street, on a cold winter’s day. The street and pavements are covered in a slushy snow and the cold has almost freed the street of people with the exception of a crowd of poor women and children who are queuing for the chance to be given some free food. We see both women and children clutching empty baskets and cannisters which they hope to fill with food given to them. To the left we can make out a hand sticking out from behind the pillars which is holding a bread roll which is part of the free food. This could be a bakery and the baker has decided to give the poor some of yesterday’s stale bread. The people are poorly dressed in shabby and ragged clothing. In the middle of the street we observe a policeman walking towards the crowd but seemingly uninterested in what is happening.

Gunnar Heiberg by Oda Krohg (1900)

Oda Krohg’s extra-marital relationship with the playwright Gunnar Heiberg became serious around 1897 and Oda declared she was in love with him. She left Oslo in 1897, and took her eight-year-old son, Per, and went to live with Heiberg in Paris. Christian also left the Norwegian capital in 1901 and moved to Paris where he became an art instructor at Académie Colarossi in 1902. Later Oda set herself up in an artist’s studio in Montparnasse and soon immersed herself into the art world of Paris meeting most of the leading artists including Henri Matisse. Having now established herself she began to exhibit her work at the Salon d’Automne. Oda’s restless nature kicked in once again and around this time she began a relationship with the poet and art critic Jappe Nilssen. When that finally died she returned to her husband, Christian and Oda along with their children left Paris and returned to Oslo in 1909 but would often return to Paris for long periods and did not final settle down in Oslo until 1911. From 1909 to 1925 Christian held the post of professor and director of the newly founded Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Oslo.

Five to Twelve by Christian Krohg (c 1924)

One of Christian Krohg’s last paintings which he completed a year before his death was entitled Five to Twelve. On the face of it, it appears to be a self-portrait and we see him with his long white beard, but almost bald, as he sleeps in a chair beneath a pendulum clock. The face of the clock is completely blank, but the title of the artwork tells us the time: it is five minutes to midnight, close to midnight and maybe meant to symbolise that it is close to the end of his life.

Grave of Christian Krohg and Oda Krohg at Vår Frelsers gravlund, Oslo, Norway.

In 1925, Krohg retired as the director of the State Academy of Art, and he died in Oslo a few months later, on 16 October, aged 73. Oda Krohg died exactly ten years later on October 15th 1935, aged 75. Christian and Oda are buried at the Cemetery of Our Saviour in Oslo.

Per Lasson Krohg

Christian and Oda Krohg’s son, Per Lasson Krohg, who was born in Åsgårstrand, Norway in June 1889, followed in his parent’s footsteps and became an artist. As a teenager, he received his artistic training from his father and, when he was twenty years old, had Henri Matisse for a mentor. Per Lasson Krohg’s artistic work was varied and covered simple drawings on paper, to colour illustrations, and from designing posters to set design and sculpture, but he will probably be remembered mainly for the oil canvas mural he painted in 1952 for the United Nations Security Council Chamber, located in the United Nations building.

Mural at the United Nations Security Council Chamber by Per Lasson Krohg

It depicts a phoenix rising from its ashes, as a symbol of the world being rebuilt after the Second World War. Above the dark sinister colours at the bottom different images in bright colours symbolizing the hope for a better future are depicted. Equality is symbolized by a group of people weighing out grain for all to share.

Nana Krohg, Christian and Oda’s daughter was born in Brussels in the summer of 1885. At this time, Oda was still married to Engelhart and his living with Oda was passed off as a “study stay”. Nana Krohg’s art career was neither long nor particularly comprehensive. At the age of 18, she attended an art school and received tuition for the next two years from the Norwegian painter, Johan Nordhagen. Nana never became a professional artist and after her marriage to Anton Schweigaard around 1909, she simply used her artistic skills in design and homemaking for her own use. The couple had two children, Anton Martin and Line.

The Sick Child by Edvard Munch

The Sick Child by Edvard Munch (1907) The Tate, London

If I was to mention the name Edvard Munch to most people they would automatically think of his famous painting entitled The Scream and although I will look at that masterpiece in a future blog, today I want to concentrate on his very poignant painting entitled Det syke barn (The Sick Child) which he completed in 1886.  The version you see above is one he completed twenty years after he painted the original and is now to be found in the Tate Gallery, London.  However I look more closely at the painting, I would like to delve into the early life of Munch and by so doing, it may give one an insight into the man and his paintings.

Edvard Munch was born on December 12th, 1863, on a farm, in the village of Ådalsbruk in Løten, Norway.  His father, Christian Munch, the son of a clergyman, was a military doctor, who in 1861 had married Laura Catherine Bjølstad, a woman half his age.  The couple had two sons, Peter Andreas and Edvard and three daughters, Johanne Sophie, Laura Catherine and Inger Marie.     In 1864, when Edvard was just one year old, the family moved to Kristiania (now known as Oslo) as his father had been offered the post of medical officer at the Akershus Fortress.  In 1868, when Edvard was still not five years of age, his mother died of tuberculosis.  Following her death the five children were brought up by their father and their aunt Karen.  Edvard proved to be a sickly child, especially during the cold harsh Norwegian winters.   He suffered from chronic asthmatic bronchitis and had several serious attacks of rheumatic fever and would often have to be kept off school and it was during these times when he was at home confined to his bed that Edvard developed a love of sketching.  Whilst at home his father would tutor him in history and literature.  There can be no doubt as to Christian Munch’s devotion to his children but there was a down-side to this dedication and attentiveness.  Christian Munch was an extremely religious man.  He was a orthodox Christian and a great believer and follower of pietism.  The Pietist movement combined the Lutheranism of the time with the Calvinism emphasis on individual piety and living a vigorous Christian life.  Edvard always remembered his father’s strict religious beliefs and in Sue Prideaux’s 2005 book on Munch entitled Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, she quotes Munch:

“…My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born…”

Edvard Munch, like his siblings had to suffer their father’s religious fanaticism and he would often tell them when they were naughty that their mother was looking down upon them and weeping with sadness at their behaviour.  Combine his father’s behaviour with his own illnesses as a child and it is no wonder that young Edvard and some of his siblings experienced nightmares and death-like hallucinations.  Death was never far away from Edvard.  His favourite sister, Johanne Sophie, died of tuberculosis in 1877 when he was fourteen years old.  One of his younger sisters was diagnosed with a mental illness at an early age and Edvard’s brother Andreas who was the only one of the children to marry, died a few months after his wedding.  All this affected Edvard and in Arne Eggum’s 1984 biography of the artist, he quotes Munch as saying:

“…I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption and insanity…”

To supplement his meagre army pay, Christian Munch tried to set up in private practice but this failed and he and his children suffered a poverty-stricken lifestyle which made it necessary to move from home to home in ever worsening conditions.  Many of Edvard Munch’s early drawings and watercolours were of the interiors of their various homes.    In 1879 he followed his father’s wishes by entering the Technical College to become an engineer. However the illnesses Munch had suffered during his childhood continued and, as was the case with his time at school, he had frequent absences from the college due to his ailments.  He fell so far behind in his studies that in the autumn of 1880 he left the college, deciding engineering was not for him. There was an entry in his diary of November 7th 1880:

‘….My decision is now namely to be a painter…”

In the following year he enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design where he stayed for one year.  He and a few of his fellow art students then set up and rented a studio in a building which housed other painters.  One of these painters was the Norwegian artist, Christian Krohg, who offered to tutor these young aspiring painters.  Krohg was a leading figure in the changeover from romanticism to naturalism, characterized by Norwegian art in this period.   Edvard Munch exhibited his first painting at the end of 1883 at the Industry and Art Exhibition in Oslo.

In 1885 Munch received money to study for three weeks in Paris and the following year he began to work on today’s featured painting, The Sick Child.

My featured painting today by Munch was completed in 1886 when he was just twenty-three years of age and remains one of his most important works.  Munch himself describe this work as “a breakthrough in my art”  Munch created numerous versions of the painting and as I said at the beginning, the painting you see before you today is the fourth version, which he painted in 1907, and which is currently being exhibited at the Tate Gallery, London.   In the painting, the central character is that of a stricken young girl propped up in bed by a thick white pillow and covered by a heavy blanket.  She is dying of tuberculosis.  Her red hair is tousled and uncombed.  This is not just the death of any girl.  This is the death of Edvard Munch’s elder sister, Johanne Sophie, who was dying slowly, in fever, often hallucinating, and begging for someone to rescue her from the jaws of death. Edvard was both distressed and terrified by his own helplessness. His father even with his medical knowledge could not do anything to save his daughter. In the eyes of young Edvard’s both God and his father were both guilty of letting Sophie die.  From this time on, death became a constant companion in the young artist’s life and there can be no doubt that this early traumatic childhood experience influenced all of Munch’s art.   Munch later, he said of this feeling:

“…Sickness, insanity and death were the angels that surrounded my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life…”

This work of art is all about the fragility of life.  As she lies back on the pillow the young girl seems to be focusing on the black drape at the right of the painting.  Maybe Munch wanted to have us interpret this as her staring at death itself.  Next to the bed of the dying girl we see a distraught female, clutching one of her hands in theirs, offering what little comfort she can at this heartrending time.  Look how the supportive friend, who holds the hand of her dying friend, is affected by the situation. Her head is bowed and her eyes are averted from the face of the dying child.   She cannot bear to witness the fear and suffering in the child’s eyes.

I have often said in earlier blogs that I wondered what was going through the artist’s mind when he or she was painting a certain picture.  In this case we can almost feel the pain and the sadness of the artist as he portrayed his dying sister.  Anybody who has suffered the loss of a family member must know what was going through Munch’s mind as he had to recall such a harrowing scene.

There is a history to this version of the painting.  It was bought by the city of Dresden in 1928, where it was displayed in the city art gallery.  Ten years later the Nazis regime declared that the art of Edvard Munch was ‘degenerate’ and, in November 1938, all his works in German public collections were collected in Berlin for sale by auction. Today’s featured painting and many others by Munch were rescued by a Norwegian art dealer, Harald Holst Halvorsen, who returned them safely to Oslo. The painting was then acquired by Thomas Olsen in 1939, who donated it to the Tate.

Were the critics as moved by this poignant painting when it was exhibited at the Autumn Exhibition in Kristiana in 1886?    Alas the painting shocked the critics and the public alike and a storm of indignation and protest broke out.   It is very important to try and understand the people’s hostile reaction;   they were simply not accustomed to see this kind of painting. For them, art was still synonymous with beauty, harmony, good shape, and for them the sight of suffering, ugliness and pain in a painting was just not acceptable.  Edvard Munch however was not put off by the condemnation and criticism.  He came back to the painting time and time again over the following twenty years, re-painting it but never once toning down the sadness and the emotion which, I am sure you agree, makes it a beautiful and moving work of art.  Death, illness and mental anguish were subjects that would from then on continue to figure significantly in Edvard Munch’s future paintings.