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Edvard Munch’s
female influences

Women were a vital part of Munch’s art and life
Explore the world of the women who influenced the 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 views on 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 shaped 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 Norway's capital Kristiania (now Oslo) to take care of Edvard and his four brothers and sisters. In 1877, tragedy struck again when Edvard’s older sister Sofie also died of tuberculosis.

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

The woman who introduced Munch to art

Munch’s aunt Karen Bjølstad was herself an artist. She introduced Edvard Munch to the world of art when he was still a child.

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

Munch’s early artistic project would partly evolve from the sudden deaths of his mother and sister. In 1885, he began painting the first version of The Sick Child, which depicts his older sister Sofie and aunt Karen.

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

Female family members

Dynamic Variation:
“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 when he met Milly Thaulow (1860–1937).

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

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

In his work Dance of Life, painted in 1899–1900, the Munch and Thaulow are depicted as the central couple in a jealousy drama. 

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 in the small seaside town of Åsgårdstrand. Munch was wounded in his left middle finger when a pistol allegedly accidentally discharged. Neither Larsen nor Munch was able to provide a satisfactory explanation of the event and it is still not known what really happened. However, what is known is that Munch would thereafter work without the use of one of his joints for the rest of his life.

Although this 1899 photograph of Larsen and Munch does look like a portrait of a married couple, Munch never married.

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

In 1905, Munch painted Head by head, which depicts himself together with Larsen.

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

The girls in his summer retreat

The theme in the painting The Girls on the Bridge is central in Munch’s oeuvre and is featured in twelve editions of the work. Munch painted the first edition just after the turn of the century. The first edition is exhibited at The National Museum in Oslo. The motif is from the small seaside town Åsgårdstrand.

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

Flirtation and friendship

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

One of these women was Ingse Vibe (1886–1945) who is said to have caught Munch's attention by leaning over the wooden fence outside his house in Åsgårdstrand one day in 1903, when she was just 16 years old.

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

They cultivated a friendship that would last for decades. This relationship is documented through their preserved correspondence. One postcard is a photo of Ingse acting on stage at the National Theatre in Oslo that reads: “I wanted to send you a small greeting and show you how pretty I look when I’m a good girl. Yours, Ingse.”

Munch also frequently used Ingse as a model for his drawings and paintings.

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

Another postcard from Ingse Vibe to Edvard Munch, sent in 1907, shows that the notion that a woman could dress in a suit and sail a boat was alive 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 1903 lithograph depicting the English violinist Eva Mudocci (1883–1953), who was Munch’s lover. The motif is closely related to Munch’s key work Madonna. Mudocci also appears in two other works by Munch from the same year: The violin concert and Salome. Munch has been quoted as saying that Mudocci had “eyes of a thousand years” and once sent her a letter in which 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 portraits of women at Ekely in Oslo

Between 1916 and 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 less well known today.

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

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

Learn more about Edvard Munch

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