The Sick Child I 1896
The lithographic stones with the large large head already lay side by side in serried ranks, ready for printing. Munch arrived, stood in front of them, screwed up his eyes, and pointed his finger blindly ahead: "Print ... grey, green, blue, brown." Then he opened his eyes and said to me: "Come, let ́s go and have a schnaps ..." Then the printer printed until Munch returned and again blindly gave the command: "yellow, pink, red ..." And this was repeated a few more times ...
The Sick Child ...
Lithograph printed in grey
Sheet size: 50,3 * 63 cm
Subject size: 42,0 * 56,4
Woll: 72, X, c
Printed in Paris by Clot
Cream China paper
“Her (Sofie’s) eyes went red – so now it was certain – that soon it would come, death – it was inconceivable ...”i Edvard Munch wrote this around 1890. At that point, 13 years had passed since his sister Sofie had wasted away and died of tuberculosis – only 15 years old.
In 1885–86, Munch painted the first version of The Sick Child, now often referred to as Sick Girl. The picture was exhibited at the Autumn Exhibition in 1886, with the title Study. By then, he had already drawn attention to himself as a talented artist with a wonderful sense of colour. But the so-called Study caused a scandal – was he showing an unfinished painting? With only a few exceptions, criticism was extremely negative. Although Munch had used a tradi- tional motif – sickness and death were part of the repertoire of realism – he now broke completely with expectations as to what a completed painting should look like. Artists such as Hans Heyerdahl and Christian Krohg had both painted related motifs in the early 1880s, for which they had been praised both at home and abroad.ii But for Munch things were to go otherwise. The artist later recalled: “When on the opening day I entered the room where it had been hung, people were in a cluster in front of the picture – I could hear cries and laughter.”iii
Munch’s attempts to recreate his emotions and give them artistic expression characterise his manner of painting and his treatment of the canvas. Layer upon layer was added to the canvas, only to be scraped off before a new layer was applied. “When I saw the sick child for the first time – the pale head with the strikingly red hair against the white pillow – I got an impression that disappeared during the work. I brought out a good but different image on the canvas. This image I painted many times in the course of a year – scratched it out – let it dissolve in the paint itself – and tried repeatedly to recapture that first impression – the transparent, white skin against the canvas, the quivering mouth, the quivering hands.”iv
The picture marked Munch’s break with naturalism. He was looking for something more profound with art than the naturalism and realism of the age was capable of conveying: “In ‘The Sick Child’ I broke new ground – it was a breakthrough in my art. – Most of what I have done later was born out of this picture –.”v The painting, which now hangs in the National Gallery in Oslo, is almost square. Munch used models, and the young Betzy girl is portrayed sitting in a wicker chair facing the wall. The picture has a shallowness about it, and the onlooker has a feeling of being very close to the scene of the sick child. The girl is leaning against a large, white pillow, and on the right sits a woman in black, her head bowed, while she holds the young girl’s hand. The light from the window falls over the pale face of the dying girl, who is gazing out into the distance – towards the hereafter. The frail and dissolved facial expression is precisely the essence of the picture, and it was this section that Munch transferred to his major lithographic work.
The industrialist Olaf Schou, who was to become one of Munch’s most important patrons and collectors, wanted Munch in the 1890s to execute a version of the motif for him. Munch was in Paris at the time, where he was predominantly working on graphics.vi
He was deeply interested in the graphic medium, both for its artistic potential and for the chance of prolife- rating his motifs for a larger public. Shortly after his arrival in the artistic metropolis, he made contact with one of the leading printers in the city, Auguste Clot.
It was possibly his work on the painted version of The Sick Child for Schou that inspired Munch to the litho- graphic version. His brother’s death from pneumonia in December 1895 can, of course, also have evoked his memo- ries of Sofie.
Earlier, Munch had done two variants of The Sick Child as etchings. At Clot’s the coloured lithograph was to become the solution for what has since been known as one of Munch’s finest graphics – three versions of which can be seen here. All of them were printed by Clot in the 1896–97 period. No later reprints are known.
Munch chose to concentrate on the section dealing with the profile of the sick child against the white pillow. In a rectangular format he formed the motif using lithographic chalk, ink and scraper, dividing up the motif with the various colours. Each element of the picture was drawn on a separate stone, as the printing process required one stone per colour. The artist Paul Herman has told of what he saw one day when visiting Clot: “The lithographic stones with the large head already lay lined up next to each other, ready for printing. Munch arrived, stood in front of the row, peered with his eyes and blindly conducted through the air with his finger: “Print ... grey, green, blue, brown.” Then he opened his eyes and said to me: “Come on, let’s go and drink a snaps ...” Then the printer continued with the printing Munch came back and blindly commanded him again: “Yellow, pink, red ...” And this was repeated a couple or so more times.”vii
With the aid of various colour combinations, Munch created different moods: “The fact is that at different times one sees with different eyes. (...) The way in which one sees also depends on the state of mind one is in. This is what makes it possible for a motif to be seen in many ways, and this is what makes art interesting.”viii The delicate face and the nervous mood of the hatched sections of the criss-cross pattern of the pillow is strongly portrayed and shows clear parallels with the painting. But in terms of colour Munch further developed the mood of the picture by sometimes underscoring the sickly and weak nature of the child, and at other times the more certain outcome of the illness – death. Despite its powerful content, the lithograph was to become one of Munch’s most sought after, and he himself said: “I consider the lithograph to be my most important work of graphic art.”ix