Munch was born in 1863, the son of Christian Munch, a military doctor, and his wife Laura. After his mother succumbed to tuberculosis in 1868, Munch and his four siblings, who themselves suffered bouts of sustained illness throughout childhood, were raised by their emotionally volatile and fervently religious father. “I was born dying…” Munch later recalled, “Sickness, insanity, and death were the dark angels standing guard at my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life.”
A gifted draftsman from childhood, Munch briefly studied engineering in accordance with his father’s wishes but was determined to become a painter, and commenced his formal training in Kristiania, now Oslo, in 1881. Perhaps more fundamental to his early artistic development was the Kristiania Bohème, the circle of artists and intellectuals into whose orbit he was drawn. While seduced by their rejection of bourgeois convention and embrace of a freedom based on sexual liberation, Munch would later reflect that: “God—and everything was overthrown—everyone raging in a wild, deranged dance of life…But I could not set myself free from my fear of life and thoughts of eternal life.” Nevertheless, the dictums of the anarchist writer Hans Jaeger, who advocated for the primacy of personal experience, profoundly impacted Munch’s burgeoning artistic practice, and his evolving and highly experimental style soon became a vehicle for psychological revelation.
Following the death of his father in 1889, Munch lived mainly in Paris and then Berlin. This was the most productive period of his artistic life, during which he undertook a series of paintings he called the Frieze of Life, ultimately presenting twenty-two works, including his famous Scream, in an exhibition in Berlin in 1902. In paintings carrying such titles as Despair, Melancholy, Anxiety, and Jealousy, Munch’s style, which varied greatly from canvas to canvas, reflected his fragile and fluctuating mental state.
Munch’s pleasure at his long overdue critical and commercial success following the exhibition in Berlin was palpable but fleeting, and the patterns of mental anguish, excessive drinking, and romantic immiseration that characterized his adult life persisted unabated. In 1908, he collapsed and checked himself into a sanitarium, where regained some degree of mental composure. The following year, the artist moved to a country house in near Oslo, where he lived in solitude and painted until his death in 1944.