The Sick Child
One of Munch's most repeated motifs is based on his sister Sophie's death in 1877.
When Edvard Munch was five years old, he lost his mother. Nine years later, his older sister Sophie also died. These two traumas were to deeply impact Munch, and his sister's death and illness inspired one of his best-known motifs, The Sick Child.
After Edvard's mother Laura Munch’s death her younger sister Karen Bjølstad joined the family, and even though she and Edvard's father Christian Munch never married, she soon took on the role of a substitute mother. The more mouths Christian had to feed, the more the family struggled to make ends meet with the modest income of a military doctor. They were obliged to move several times, gravitating towards the east side of Kristiania where the city’s working class was accommodated.
While maintaining the appearance of a middle-class, academic identity, the family lived in relative poverty. These circumstances also played their part in the next blow of fate that befell the Munchs in 1877: the death of Munch’s sister Sophie at the age of 15.
Like her mother, Sophie died from tuberculosis. The trauma of this experience for the 14-year-old Edvard is apparent in his numerous drawings, prints and paintings of Sophie in her last hours. To capture her again and again must have given him the possibility of revisiting the event. Through art he perhaps attempted to reconcile himself with these memories.
As early as 1883, Munch was given the opportunity to exhibit works at the Autumn Exhibitions. His first contribution, a painting of a girl lighting an oven, did not attract much attention. Neither did the works he exhibited over the next couple of years generate a larger audience, let alone potential buyers. Even though he was regularly mentioned, and sometimes harshly criticized, in the press, he did not exactly become the talk of the town. For the 1886 edition of the Autumn Exhibition, Munch took a more radical step and finally got the publicity that he wanted. The painting he exhibited as ‘A Study’ would later become famously known under the title The Sick Child.
The motif shows a red-haired girl propped up in an armchair. Her head is shown in profile – her gaze empty and dead – while her skin is so pale that her body appears to dissolve into the whiteness of the pillow behind her. A woman sits next to the child, holding her hand. She bows her head and hides her face from us in a universal expression of grief and sorrow. The two figures are framed by still lifes of a bottle on a nightstand and of a glass. Other than that, the image remains indistinct and chaotic.
The canvas is covered in rough, coarse brushstrokes; the colours are smeared together; paint has run and dripped down the canvas; and the artist has scratched deep into the layers of paint revealing the whiteness of the canvas underneath. The motif was deeply personal as Munch painted the memory of his sister Sophie’s death. Dying in her father’s armchair, she is comforted and bemoaned by Aunt Karen. Never had anyone painted so serious a subject in such a drastic and brutal manner. Yet, what we might perceive today as an intense and touching expression of loss caused an uproar at the Autumn Exhibition.
The picture was controversial, and public opinion was divided. Many critics gave voice to the public outrage of visitors who described the work as a ‘daub’, ‘scandalous’ and ‘ugly’. At the same time, while criticizing technical mistakes and the work’s unfinished and reckless execution, many of the same reviewers defended Munch. Even the conservative newspaper Fædrelandet found something ‘noble’ and ‘touching’ in the picture.
In earlier situations Munch could rely on the praise and support of his friends and colleagues, but this time they found it difficult to take his side. Some seemed to believe that Munch had gone too far. Surprisingly, the most anti-establishment of them all, Hans Jæger, adopted a critical tone in his review for another conservative paper, Dagen, as he warned his friend:
Munch, Munch! Don’t do any more paintings like this. Until you have learned to conquer everybody, artists and ignorants, you have not reached the realm of real art.
In many ways The Sick Child and its display represented a breakthrough for Munch. He had caused a public scandal that a young artist could build upon. But more importantly, he had succeeded in tapping into very personal memories and emotions and turning them into art.
The painting established the direction for his artistic development in the near future. In the years and decades to come, he would repeatedly depict Sophie’s death in paintings, prints and drawings. Apart from economical concerns, what may have spurred this repetition of the motif was Munch’s wish to revisit the painful experience.
Perhaps this was his way of working through the event, of honouring Sophie’s memory.