Munch has many works dealing with the illness (tuberculosis) and death of his dear sister, Sophie. In this painting she is seated in the wicker chair with her back to us. The aura of sanctity is in no way diminished by the medicine bottles, bedpan and paraphernalia of the sickroom. The bed is empty and in the background. The artist directs our focus not to the dying person but to the inner thoughts and grief of the family members, the soon-to-be survivors.

Munch's father (a physician) and aunt Karen (who brought up the children after Munch's mother died when he was five years old) are close by Sophie. Munch and his sisters are in the foreground. His brother Andreas is alone to the left (perhaps wanting to leave--the lithograph version shows the door slightly ajar).

Munch was fourteen when his sister died. Members of the family (who can be identified in so many of his pictures, e.g. "Death Agony," "The Dead Child") are painted not at the ages they were when the event happened, but closer to the ages they were when Munch painted the picture. Munch would not dispute that illness and death laid the foundation for his art. He himself said, "In the same chair as I painted the sick one I and all my dear ones from my mother on have been sitting winter after winter longing for the sun--until death took them away--I and all my dear ones from my father on have paced up and down the floor in anxiety." (Bente Torjusen, Words and Images of Edvard Munch {Chelsea Green Publ. Co., Chelsea, Vt., 1986)



Often referred to as the Sigmund Freud of painting, Munch's own psychologic pain is manifested pictorially if not transformed into creative form. The many studies and versions of this painting attest to the importance in his adult years of the memory of his sister's dying, and to the healing power of art in coming to terms with one's personal loss and grief.

The positioning of the relatives captures the paradoxical nature of grief: aloneness and existential isolation even in the midst of a group. Yet, discussing this scene with patients as if it were in a hospital, today, some would point out the simple details of caring (even to the pillow and religious art of choice), the communion without words, the dignity, privacy, and respect--which stand in contrast to some current practices. [See, for example, the findings of the SUPPORT study, whose objectives were to improve end-of-life decision making and reduce the frequency of a mechanically supported, painful, and prolonged dying process. (J. Amer. Med. Assoc., 274: 1591-1598, 1995).]

Editor's Note: For further relevant discussion of Munch's work, see Judith Stillion's essay, "Death and Grief Made Visible: The Life and Work of Edvard Munch," in Grief and the Healing Arts: Creativity as Therapy, ed. Sandra Bertman, pp. 289-301, annotated in this database.


This painting is dated 1893. Four other versions exist: charcoal, 1893; pencil and crayon, 1893 or 1896; pastel on plate,1893, 1896; lithograph, 1896.

Primary Source

National Gallery, Oslo, Norway