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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Edvard Munch is one of the pioneers of modern art, and he can be considered as a forerunner of the Expressionist movement. Learn more about his life in this comprehensive biography.

Born on December 12th 1863, and dying on January 23rd 1944, Munch began his career as an artist in 1880 and continued working until his death. In many ways, Munch's distinctive style, which exists as a blend of Symbolism and Expressionism, bridges the gap between the artistic trends and modes of these two centuries. Munch is the most internationally famous Norwegian visual artist, and, for instance, his painting, The Scream, has been widely printed, adapted, and parodied, with its meaning reconceptualised for a wide variety of historical, political and cultural contexts.

Munch was incredibly prolific during his lifetime and, in addition to his more well-known works, over 1500 paintings have been provisionally accredited to the artist. The following biography will outline some of the key events of Munch's life and artistic career.

Birth and Early Life

Munch was born in the small agricultural village of Ådalsbruk in Norway agricultural village, and a year after his birth, Munch moved with his family to the capital. Munch's childhood was, however, overshadowed by a sense of perpetual trauma. Munch was only five when his mother died from consumption, and the young boy continued to witness the spread of illness throughout his family.

While tuberculosis also took Munch's dearly beloved elder sister, his sister Laura, who was four years his junior, was afflicted with mental illness during her adolescence, and she required hospitalisations. His father had fits of madness, and would tell his children that their mother was crying in heaven because of their misbehaviour. Edvard, the little boy, already enduring so much pain and grief, began to have nightmares and visions of death.

His childhood is not only notable, however, for the fact that it was this traumatic past that seems, at least in part, to shape the bleak and pessimistic tone of his paintings. It was during these formative stages that, inspired by his aunt, who came to look after the family after the death of his mother, Edvard began to take an interest in drawing.

As a sickly child, frequently absent from school, he had the opportunity to hone his skills and, along with his siblings, Munch created vignettes and fanciful sketches and illustrations for the pages of his schoolbooks. At the age of sixteen, Munch enrolled into an engineering course, but realised quickly, within a year, that this was not the outlet by which to express his troubled, yearning emotions that he needed.

As an Artist

Munch approached his artistic education in the manner that was to be typical of his conscientious and rigorous work ethic. In 1881 he began formal study at Kristiania's Royal School of Art and Design. Edvard also worked incredibly hard on his own during this period and, while he produced watercolours and drawings of his home and of his meanderings around his new urban surroundings, he also started to create portraits of family members.

In 1882, Munch started working in a studio he rented with six of his friends, and together, these artists would visit exhibitions religiously, immersing themselves in the paintings of the leading Naturalists of the period, such as Frits Thaulow. During this formative period of his life and career, Naturalist painter Christian Krohg, who directed the study of Munch and his peers, was an incredibly influential figure. As a young artist in Norway, Munch drew inspiration from the artists and visual stimuli that he was surrounded with.

By the mid-eighteen eighties he was already well-established in his native Norway, having exhibited at several major exhibitions as well as being a recipient of the prestigious Schäffer scholarship – which he would also be awarded again twice more. Munch was, however, determined to make an artistic impact internationally and, with financial support from Frits Thaulow himself, Munch journeyed abroad for the first time in 1885. Before travelling to Paris in order to surround himself with the new art of the times by visiting the Louvre and the Salon, Munch embarked on a study tour of Antwerp, exhibiting a painting at the World’s Fair.

It was at this time that Munch started work on what was, in his own words, his breakthrough painting. In The Sick Child, Munch depicts the fragility of human existence, clearly drawing upon traumatic memories of his sister's death. What is most significant about this work is the fact that, in contrast to his master Christian Krohg's painting Sick Girl (1881), Munch’s image marks a departure from the Naturalist style that so preoccupied and influenced him during his early training.

While the vibrant, almost unreal, colouring and wild brushstrokes of The Sick Child convey the intensity of the artist’s emotional response to the subject, these features also leave the observer with a sense that the painting is in some senses unfinished. As with much of his other work, Munch made several versions of this painting; during the following decades, he created numerous renditions of The Sick Child using a variety of mediums and models.

Munch would return to Paris in 1889, and it was in the art metropolis where he became familiar with works by the young radical artists of the period, such as the Impressionists, including Monet, and works by Synthetists, such as Van Gogh and Goya. With his fascination for the bohemian atmosphere of the European continent, Munch spent a significant portion of his mature period in Germany, where he was part of a tight-knit community of intellectuals.

It was here that he produced some of his most popular and artistically significant works. Within the space of a few years, Munch created some of his best-known paintings, including The Scream (1893), Love and Pain (1893-94), Ashes (1894), Madonna (1894-95), and Puberty (1895). These masterpieces comprise just a portion of Munch's corpus, but each, melancholic in tone, are grounded in what are widely regarded to be hallmark themes associated with the artist's work – namely, loss of innocence, isolation and death.

Despite critical success in the world of art, it was tragedy, however, that continued to punctuate Munch's life – at least until the final period of his life. When Edvard was twenty six, he lost his father, and the emotions he expressed in his subsequent work became even more intense. While this event, along with previous traumas, is widely considered to be the catalyst behind the fact that the fin-de-siècle existed as one of the most productive periods for the artist, this sense of vast productivity and fame was shadowed by the downwards spiral that was brought on in his life by his alcoholism, resulting in complete emotional, mental and physical collapse.

Energetically wilful and determined, Edvard refused to give into this period of misfortune, and checked himself into a sanatorium, where he regained control over his drinking and his life. While great artistic success seemed to be perpetually haunted by a dark underside, Munch returned to the world of art as a changed man and artist by 1909. The work from this later period of his life, which was a lot less fatalistic and bleak than before, became more vibrant and colourful.

Works such as The Sun (1912) and Spring Ploughing (1916) are notable for the artist's use of light colours and the hopeful images of fruitfulness and life which he depicts in them. The remainder of Munch's life was spent in his native Norway, where he continued to challenge formal and thematic conventions with his work.

Defining his Career

Continuing to add to his large and varied oeuvre, Munch continued to work up until his death in 1944. Despite this prolific output, Munch was, however, a figure that was committed to art rather than to monetary gain. After his passing, his personal collection of paintings were donated to the Norwegian government. Immersing himself amongst the key thinkers and artists of his time, including Hans Jæger, Munch was an artist whose work is imbued with a profound philosophical depth. This brief biography has noted the extent to which Munch was influenced by a wide variety of figures, but his own artistic output was seminal to many other giants of twentieth-century art throughout Europe and the United States of America too.

While he was a key influence behind such artistic movements as Surrealism, Expressionism, Symbolism and Fauvism, numerous figures, including Henri Matisse, Paul Klee and Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, found inspiration in Munch's aesthetic. A successful printmaker, as well as demonstrating some inclination towards the medium of photography in the late 1890s, Munch was a man who was transfixed by the visual world that surrounded him. The work of Edvard Munch has been instrumental in the development of visual art and other artistic modes to the present day and beyond.