Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Edvard Munch: The child who never grew up

Michael Yafi
Houston, Texas

Figure 1: The Dead Mother

The paintings of Edvard Munch are often used as an example of the association between creativity and mental illness. Can we, however, analyze them from the perspective of the feelings of a child?

Traumatized by the death of his mother when he was only five years old1 as portrayed in The Dead Mother and Death and the Child, Munch remained scarred throughout his life.1,2 He lingered in a neurotic, childhood-fixated state all through adulthood. In the first stage of childhood psychological development, trust versus mistrust is the rule.3 Munch as a child never successfully developed trust, and never felt safe and secure in the world. His mother suddenly became unavailable physically and emotionally, and his father was withdrawn and distant. Because of the lack of trust, Munch always lived in fear, with a belief that the world around him was inconsistent and unpredictable.

Figure 2: The Sick Child

The emotions of frozen time, disbelief, and trauma a child may have following a parent’s death are expressed in Munch’s painting The Dead Mother (Fig 1). These emotions never left him.

Death continued to haunt Munch. His sister died when he was around fourteen, and the scene of illness in The Sick Child (Fig 2) shows this clearly: a pale, frail girl looking for help while an adult person, knowing that death was on its way, sits next to her in a silent breakdown of despair.1

The sick child was also the story of Munch himself, since he almost died of tuberculosis (which had killed his mother and sister). This vivid image kept haunting him throughout his life, as he made a series of six similar paintings over forty years. The two paintings At the Death Bed and Death in the Sickroom were also a reflection of the artist’s struggle with death that kept him hanging between the nightmares of the past and the uncertainties of the future.2

Figure 3: Dr. Max Linde’s Four Sons
Figure 4: Four Little Girls in Aasgaardstrand
Figure 5: Worker and Child
Figure 6: Separation

Children want to be happy. Munch tried to represent that by painting healthy and happy children. His friend commissioned him to paint his children in Dr. Max Linde’s Four Sons (Fig 3). He painted different stages of women’s lives in Family on the Road, the transition from childhood to adulthood in Puberty, and groups of children in Children Playing in the Street in Aasgaardstrand, Four Little Girls in Aasgaardstrand (Fig 4), Girls at the Beach, and Girls on the Pier.2

Most of the time, Munch painted children without their parents, as if he was remembering his own family. The children in the paintings were alone, as Munch himself was. When the father appears in a painting such as Worker and Child (Fig 5), he is wearing a black band of mourning on his arm indicating that the girl in the painting has probably lost her mother as Munch did.

Figure 7: The Scream

These feelings of mistrust affected Munch’s relationships with women and are clearly reflected in his paintings of love and relationships: Attraction, The Kiss, Loving Couple in the Park, and Separation (Fig 6). The broken hearted man in Separation is probably Munch himself and the woman who is moving away is a shadow of his mother.

Munch sought happiness and tried to understand life through paintings such as The Dance of Life and Dance on the Shore, but his depression and anxiety led him to alcoholism and social isolation.2 Perhaps Munch’s most famous painting was actually autobiographical, documenting his own scream in nature when two companions—seen in the back of the painting—have left him alone (Fig 7). Munch once again was painting himself as a child abandoned.2


  1. Gray F. Watson, “Edvard Munch,” Encylopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edvard-Munch
  2. “List of paintings by Edvard Munch,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_paintings_by_Edvard_Munch.
  3. Erik H. Erikson, Joan M. Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed: Extended Version, W. W. Norton, 1998.

MICHAEL YAFI is an Associate Professor and Director for the division of Pediatric Endocrinology at UTHealth, (The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston).

Highlighted Vignette Volume 15, Issue 2 – Spring 2023

Spring 2019



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