Christian Krohg’s Sick Girl has often been interpreted as a socially polemical painting, portraying the dark underbelly of modern industrial society. But more generally, the painting is a harrowing depiction of an existential theme, as succinctly captured by the art historian Jens Thiis:
“You encounter this sick child and recognize her as though she were your own, even as there is something in her eyes that recalls a sick animal. Uncomplaining, they hold you captivated, and you give in to a nebulous sense of grief, as you feel the pain of seeing her animal vitality being inexorably consumed by death.”
The neutral surroundings and simple clothes detach the image from time and space and focus our attention on the psychological content. The dying girl is heavily foregrounded, allowing the viewers to almost feel as though they are in the same room as her. We are confronted with a brutal reality, but the girl herself expresses no sorrow or despair. Krohg adhered to the ideals of realistic painting and rarely used symbols, but in this case the withering rose in the girl’s lap is an unmistakable emblem of transience.
We do not know who sat for Krohg’s painting, but there is reason to believe that the memory of his sister Nana’s illness and death in 1868 was a crucial backdrop. Krohg suffered the same fate as Edvard Munch in that he lost both a sister and his mother at a young age, and Krohg’s Sick Girl may well have been a source of inspiration for Munch’s The Sick Child (1886).
Text: Vibeke Waallann Hansen
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0