The picture shows what we can assume to be the artist’s family grouped around his sister Sophie, who died in 1877. She is sitting in a chair with her back to us. To the right stands an aunt, Karen Bjølstad, who moved in with the family to take care of the children and the household after the mother died of tuberculosis in 1868. In the background stands the father, the doctor Christian Munch, with his hands clasped as if in prayer. Near the centre of the picture is a male figure, probably Edvard, in quarter-face. Sister Laura is sitting in the foreground with her hands in her lap, while the third sister, Inger, stands staring straight at us. The male figure to the left is generally identified as Edvard’s younger brother Andreas. In Death in the Sick-Room there is no physical contact between the people, except for the hand that aunt Karen has laid on the back of the chair in which the invalid sits.
The subject of sickness was so widespread in the late 1800s that those years have been called the “pillow period” in Scandinavian painting. “Sickness, madness and death were the black angels who watched over my cradle,” Munch wrote.
“I paint not what I see, but what I saw,” Munch once said about his works. This is a situation recalled from several years earlier, to which he returned in the 1890s. The scene is strictly composed, and excludes anything irrelevant to the theme. The dark clothes and the noxious green of the bedroom walls intensify the mood of discomfort.
The painting was given to the National Gallery by Olaf Schou in 1910.
Text: Frode Haverkamp
From "Edvard Munch in the National Museum", Nasjonalmuseet 2008, ISBN 978-82-8154-035-54