In the 1880s Edvard Munch often found human subjects among his close family and friends. One eloquent portrait is that of the writer, anarchist and social critic Hans Jæger. The subject sits leaning back in a sofa, weighing us up through his spectacles with a direct gaze. His hat and tight-fitting overcoat emphasise his aloof and impassive aspect. The cool light streaming in through the curtains to the left casts deep shadows creating shimmers of red-violet, brown and bluegreen hues. The pastose, emphatic brushstrokes seem tossed onto the canvas with the same casual attitude as the character on the sofa.
Hans Jæger was a central figure in the group known as the Christiania Bohemians – a small but conspicuous group of young students, artists and writers living in the capital who shared radical and incisively critical views on bourgeois society. Munch belonged to this circle in the 1880s. Their “credo” was partly summed up in the commandment: “Thou shalt write thy life.” Jæger’s book From Christiania’s Bohemia (1885) was banned due to what were regarded at the time as pornographic scenes, for which in 1886 he was fined and sent to prison.
Although Munch gradually distanced himself from the Bohemian circle, he retained his respect for Jæger – almost ten years his senior – as both an individual and an idealist. For many years the painting remained in Munch’s possession, and was shown in most of his exhibitions in the 1890s. In 1897 he offered it to the National Gallery, which duly purchased it, whereupon the Bohemian found his place on the wall alongside national literary heroes such as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.
Text: Frithjof Bringager
From "Edvard Munch in the National Museum", Nasjonalmuseet 2008, ISBN 978-82-8154-035-54