Munch believed that art “can come only from the interior of man,” as he wrote in his diary in 1907. Indeed, the painter drew inspiration for his strongest works from a deep well of personal memories and emotions.
The artist’s early years were plagued with illness and tragedy, including the deaths of his mother and sister from tuberculosis. These misfortunes stoked Munch’s on-and-off struggles with mental illness and alcoholism, as well as some of his most influential paintings. “Without fear and illness, my life would have been a boat without a rudder,” he later said, alluding to the integral role these forces played in his personal and artistic growth.
By his twenties, Munch began channelling the pain of past events directly into his art. In the paintings that resulted, he conveyed his psychological state in both subject matter and style. The Sick Child (1885–86), for example, depicts a small, ailing girl, not unlike his late sister. The content itself is melancholy, but it’s Munch’s rough, mottled brushwork and angry scoring that magnify the sense of emotional strife. The whole scene looks unfinished and hazy, as if viewed through tears.
The impressionistic quality of the painting scandalized the Oslo art establishment, which still glorified naturalistic work. Critics derided Munch’s “incoherent daubs of paint” and his fuzzy depiction of body parts: “Surely that can’t be a hand, can it? It looks like fish stew in lobster sauce,” shot one writer.
But Munch wasn’t discouraged by poor reviews. He knew exactly what he was doing: baring his soul through his brushwork. “In these images the painter gives what is most valuable to him—he gives his soul—his sorrow—his joy—he gives his own heart’s blood,” he later wrote, resolutely, in his journals.
“He presents the human being—not the object,” he continued. “These images will—must—move the spectator all the more powerfully—first a few—then many more, then everyone.”