Most of us know Edvard Munch as the man behind The Scream. But there's much more to this famed painter than his most iconic offering. His career and many of his works were influenced by experimentation, disappointment, and a troubled father-son relationship. Here are a few facts about the Norwegian artist.
1. MUNCH'S CHILDHOOD WAS FILLED WITH TRAGEDY.
The second of five children, Edvard Munch was born on December 12, 1863, in Løten, Norway. Despite the fact that his father Christian was a doctor, the Munch family saw much suffering through poor health. When was only 5 years old, his mother died of tuberculosis, nine years later his 15-year-old sister Johanne Sophie would follow. His younger sister Laura was later committed to an asylum because of mental health issues. Of his family, Munch once lamented, "I inherited two of mankind's most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption and insanity."
2. HIS POOR HEALTH BECAME AN UNEXPECTED OPPORTUNITY.
His own sickly nature kept the young Edvard inside during Norway's brutally cold winters, and often out of school. But that doesn't mean he sat idle. In between tutoring sessions from his classmates, his Aunt Karen, and his father, he would draw devotedly.
3. HIS FATHER WAS A MUSE AND A TYRANT.
Left to raise the children without his wife, Christian Munch dedicatedly educated them on history and literature, amusing the kids with vibrant readings from Edgar Allan Poe's tales of terror. But when the children misbehaved, Christian would lash out verbally. He insisted that their dead mother looked down from heaven ashamed by them.
The Poe stories as well as his father's dark tendencies would shape Edvard's psyche and art. He once wrote, "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."
4. MUNCH'S CHOSEN CAREER WAS A DISAPPOINTMENT TO HIS FATHER.
In 1879, a 16-year-old Edvard enrolled in a technical college. While studying engineering, he learned perspective drawing. But continued bouts of illness and his desire to make art ultimately led him to drop out of his courses. When Munch informed his father that he planned to become a painter, the irate Christian declared it an "unholy trade." Undeterred, Edvard enrolled in Oslo's (then called Kristiania) Royal School of Art and Design, which was founded by one of his distant relations, painter Jacob Munch.
5. THE PAINTER FACED EARLY CRITICAL SCORN.
While still in school, Munch painted an impressionistic portrait of his peer, artist Karl Jensen Hjell. The piece, which is now on display in Olso's National Gallery, was derided as "impressionism carried to the extreme" and "a travesty of art."
6. ONLY ONE OF HIS EARLY NUDE PAINTINGS SURVIVED.
While finding his voice as an artist, Munch experimented with Impressionism, Naturalism, and even a series of nudes. But Standing Nude is the only painting of this latter series that escaped his father's wrath. Though Christian would sometimes send his son financial aid, many art historians believe that he may have destroyed Edvard's early nudes. Today the sketches are the lone evidence that more existed.
7. MUNCH'S LATE SISTER WAS THE SUBJECT OF HIS FIRST MAJOR WORK.
Painted when Munch was out of training and developing his own style, The Sick Child is regarded as his pioneering break from Impressionism. Described by the artist as a "soul painting," it would be the first of six pieces of the same name he made over 40 years. Each Sick Child depicts a moment before the death of his dear sister where she appears to be whispering to their sobbing Aunt Karen. Though the Oslo community initially bristled over the painting's sensitive subject, 20th century art critic Patricia Donahue described its scene positively. "It is almost as though the child, knowing that nothing more can be done, is comforting a person who has reached the end of her endurance," she wrote.
8. HE MADE A STRING OF SELF-PORTRAITS.
9. CHANNELING HIS FEELINGS DEFINED HIS LEGACY.
Though his "soul painting" was met with controversy, Munch refused to give up his emotional inspirations. For a 1902 exhibition, he rolled out Frieze of Life—A Poem about Life, Love and Death, a series of 22 paintings that bore names like Despair, Melancholy, Anxiety, Jealousy, and The Scream. Finally Munch earned hard-won acclaim from art critics, though the public still found his work discomforting and strange.
10. FAME AND FORTUNE DID NOT ALWAYS BRING HIM HAPPINESS.
After decades of tragedy, self-doubt and rejection, Munch did enjoy his success for a time. But this gave way to a downward spiral, spurred by drinking and mental illness issues. In 1908, he checked himself into a sanitarium because he was hearing voices. He later recalled, "My condition was verging on madness—it was touch and go." By the spring of 1909, he felt recovered and checked out, eager to get back to his work. By then, the public had warmed to his psychologically driven art.
11. AFTER THE SANITARIUM, MUNCH'S WORK CHANGED.
The artist went on to live another 35 years. But the pieces he produced in this time were mostly landscapes, and largely lacking the dark themes from his previous pieces. Vibrant colors and loose brush strokes made the paintings from this time feel more optimistic and even joyful.
12. BY THE 1910S, MUNCH'S HEYDAY WAS BEHIND.
Munch had been made a Knight of the Royal Order of St. Olav for his contribution to Norway's art culture, and enjoyed his first American exhibit in New York in 1912. But no piece from this era earned the kind of controversy or acclaim of his earlier offerings.
13. HE RETURNED TO NUDES.
During his 50s and 60s, Munch lived at various country estates outside Oslo, where he enjoyed painting farm life scenes. But his reputation also made it easy to revisit the nude studies of his youth, as young would-be models relished the chance to pose for a modern master.
14. MUNCH WAS LOATHED BY ADOLF HITLER.
The Nazi dictator categorized the Norwegian painter's work as "degenerative art," and removed all 82 of Munch's pieces from the walls of German museums ahead of World War II. "For all we care, those prehistoric Stone Age culture barbarians and art-stutterers can return to the caves of their ancestors and there can apply their primitive international scratching," Hitler declared in 1937.
When the Germans invaded Norway in 1940, Munch was terrified that the Nazis might invade his home and destroy his stored paintings—and by extension his legacy. This never took place, but, in a bizarre twist, the Nazis hosted Munch's funeral in 1944. At the time, it was seen as a propaganda move intended to rebrand the artist they'd called "degenerate" as a Nazi sympathizer, when Munch could no longer renounce them.
15. MUNCH DID NOT SURVIVE WWII, BUT HIS REPUTATION DID SURVIVE.
The artist died in his home, a month after his 80th birthday. Despite Hitler's efforts, Munch's legacy still thrives. After his death, the works he so worried over were not confiscated by Nazis, but gifted to the city of Oslo. Today, Munch's works can be found in museums around the world. His pieces inspired the German Expressionist movement. His homeland honored him by placing his likeness on the 1000 kroner note. And The Scream went on to become Munch's most famous work as well as one of the most famous paintings the world has ever known.