Edvard Munch painted many versions of The Sick Child, both studies and completed paintings. It was a subject close to his heart. He had almost died of tuberculosis as a child, and he lost a sister to the disease when she was aged only 14, and it is Johanne Sophie who became the eponymous subject of his famous painting.
Variants of the painting contrast regarding both style and colour but, for us, the pervading colour of note is green.
However, it is not the optimistic green, which might be attributed to an external natural landscape; instead it is the bilious green of the sickroom; the sickly green of internalised emotions; unhealthy emotions such as jealousy, greed and guilt. A green rain’s a-gonna fall.
The survivor’s guilt is a common response to tragedy. Munch appears to flagellate himself for the good fortune of his own recovery with every harsh vertical stroke of his brush on the canvas, falling like whip-marks across his back.
Perversely, the picture represents an artistic, if not a cathartic, breakthrough for Munch. Raw emotions, nakedly expressed on canvas, propelled Munch from a potential dull backwater as Impressionist-manqué into a white-water torrent of hard-hitting Expressionism, a style that was to characterise his most recognised later works.
Munch manages to empower the dignity of suffering; Johanne Sophie may be victim to her disease, but she is the complete mistress of her canvas.
© Os Bros
Artists, Os Bros, stand by the bedside of The Sick Child, 1885-86, at the Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo.