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Edvard Munch’s
female influencers

Women were a vital part of Munch’s art and life
A glimpse into the world of the women who populated and influenced the personal and professional life of one of the world’s most famous artists.
“Madonna” by Edvard Munch (1894–1895).
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

Munch was a true modernist in both his work and his contemporary perception of the society. He once wrote: “No longer shall I paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. I will paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love.”

The women who formed him

When Edvard Munch was only five years old, his mother Laura Munch (1837–1868) died of tuberculosis. Her sister Karen Bjølstad (1839–1931) moved into the Munch family’s apartment in the capital of Kristiania (now Oslo) to take care of Edvard and his four brothers and sisters. In 1877, Edvard’s older sister Sofie also died of tuberculosis.

Laura and Edvard Munch
Laura and Edvard Munch.
Photo: Munchmuseet

The woman teaching him art

Munch’s stepmother Karen was herself an artist and introduced the child Edvard Munch to the world of art.

“Karen Bjølstad”, Edvard Munch (1889)
“Karen Bjølstad”, Edvard Munch (1889).
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Dag Andre Ivarsøy

Munch’s early artistic project would partly evolve around the sudden deaths of his mother and sister. In 1885 and the following year, he painted the first version of The Sick Child which shows his older sister Sofie and their aunt and stepmother Karen.

“The sick child”, Edvard Munch (1885–1886)
“The sick child”, Edvard Munch (1885–1886).
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

Further family

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“Inger in Black and Violet”, Edvard Munch (1892)
“Inger in Black and Violet”, Edvard Munch (1892).
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

The artist’s first love

In 1885, Edvard Munch experienced his first great love with Milly Thaulow (1860–1937).

Even long after the relationship was over, Munch could not get Thaulow out of his mind. Thaulow did not reciprocate his emotions and married another man, and Munch was especially disappointed when she much later divorced and then remarried without showing interest in him. This disappointment would influence his relationship with women for the rest of his life.

Thaulow was later known as one of the first to write in the Norwegian press about food and fashion.

In his work Dance of Life, painted in 1899–1900, the couple Munch/Thaulow is represented as the main theme in a drama of jealousy.

Romance and drama

Around the turn of the century, Munch had a turbulent romantic relationship with Mathilde “Tulla” Larsen (1869–1942). In the late summer of 1902, their very last meeting took place in Munch’s house and studio in the small seaside town of Åsgårdstrand. A supposedly unintended pistol shot hurt Munch’s left middle finger. Neither Larsen nor Munch was able to give a proper explanation of the event and the question of guilt was never solved. The only sure thing was that Munch would have to paint and work without the outermost finger joint for the rest of his life.

A photograph from 1899 of Larsen and Munch might look like a portrait of a married couple, but Munch never married.

Tulla Larsen & Edvard Munch
Tulla Larsen & Edvard Munch.
Photo: Munchmuseet

Munch painted Head by head in 1905, a painting representing Larsen and himself.

“Head by head”, Edvard Munch (1905)
“Head by head”, Edvard Munch (1905).
Photo: Munchmuseet

The girls of his summer town

The theme in the painting The Girls on the Bridge is central in Munch’s oeuvre and was executed in twelve editions. Munch painted the first edition just after the turn of the century and this exists in the collection of The National Museum in Oslo. The motif is from the small town of Åsgårdstrand.

“The Girls on the Bridge”, Edvard Munch (1901)
“The Girls on the Bridge”, Edvard Munch (1901).
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

Flirt and friendship

Typical for Munch’s relationships with women were brief, spontaneous first-time meetings followed by a lifelong fascination, more or less from both sides.

One key example is Ingse Vibe (1886–1945) who it is said contacted Munch by leaning over the wooden fence surrounding his house and studio in Åsgårdstrand when she was only 16 years old, in 1903.

“Ingse Vibe”, Edvard Munch (1903)
“Ingse Vibe”, Edvard Munch (1903).
Photo: Munchmuseet

They cultivated a friendship that would last for decades and that was documented through preserved letters and postcards. He would also draw and paint her extensively.

One postcard has a photo of her as an actress at The National Theatre in Oslo and reads: “I wanted to send you a small greeting and show you how pretty I look when I’m a good girl. Yours, Ingse.”

Ingse Vibe, postcard (1905)
Ingse Vibe, postcard (1905).
Photo: Munchmuseet

Another postcard from Ingse Vibe to Edvard Munch, sent in 1907, shows that the idea of a woman dressed in a suit and steering a boat was possible in Norway more than a hundred years ago.

Ingse Vibe, postcard (1907)
Ingse Vibe, postcard (1907).
Photo: Munchmuseet

Madonna and the master

The Brooch is a lithograph from 1903 representing the English violinist Eva Mudocci (1883–1953), who was Munch’s lover. The motif is closely related to Munch’s key painting Madonna. Mudocci also appears in two other works by Munch from the same year: The violin concert and Salome. Munch said that she had “eyes of a thousand years” and sent her a letter where he wrote: “Here is the stone that has fallen from my heart.”

“The Brooch”, Edvard Munch (1903)
“The Brooch”, Edvard Munch (1903).
Photo: Munchmuseet / Halvor Bjørngård

“She had the eyes of a thousand years” – Edvard Munch

The female portraits at Ekely in Oslo

From 1916 to his death in 1944, Munch lived and worked in Ekely, a former market garden located in Oslo. Although numerous women visited his home and studio in Ekely to be portrayed, many of these artworks are lesser known.

Ekely atelier, Oslo (1929)
Ekely atelier, Oslo (1929).
Photo: Munchmuseet / Munch-Ellingsen / Bono
Dynamic Variation:
Birgit Prestøe, Edvard Munch (1924)
Birgit Prestøe, Edvard Munch (1924).
Photo: Munchmuseet / Rena Li

All his life, Edvard Munch struggled between his passion for women and the fear of rejection. He considered marriage to be incompatible with his artistic ambitions and remained unmarried until he passed away in 1944 at the age of 80.

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