Edvard Munch used a simple composition for this sickbed scene, placing the main image in the centre and to the fore of the pictorial space. The sparseness of the details serves to highlight certain prominent elements, such as the girl’s head against the white pillow, the woman’s bent neck, and the point of contact between the two. Hailed as Edvard Munch’s breakthrough work, The Sick Child evinces his turn toward a more personal, expressive, and emotionally charged form of art. The painting is often seen in connection with Munch’s loss of his one-year-older sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis in 1877. Dying children were moreover a common subject among the artists of the period.
The picture’s style sets it apart from the more naturally lit, true-to-life realism favoured by Munch’s contemporaries. Thick layers of paint alternate with thin, trickling stripes, pastose brushstrokes with scratches and abrasions. The work was created over a long span of time. The picture’s physical surface draws attention to itself; it is as though Munch stopped working right in the middle of the creative process. It was with this painting that Munch revealed himself to be the master of the “unfinished” work of art.
The Sick Child was first shown at the Autumn Exhibition in 1886, under the title Study, and with its unconventional form the painting was met with both outrage and acclaim. It became a “scandalous success”, and has ever since remained one of Munch’s best known and most discussed works. Munch would later paint five further versions of this scene, one of which Olaf Schou donated to the National Gallery in 1909. In 1931 this later version was exchanged for Munch’s original version from 1885–86.
Text: Øystein Ustvedt
From "Edvard Munch in the National Museum", Nasjonalmuseet 2008, ISBN 978-82-8154-035-54