Munch, Edvard

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Lithograph

  • Date of entry: Jul-28-2006
  • Last revised: Sep-02-2013


A woman stands in the center of this work, her head tilted to one side and slightly back. Her eyes are closed and her black hair falls around her shoulders. She is nude, although no details of her bust are given; instead, she hovers as though a ghost, her pallid skin defined by the darkness engulfing her. Swarming around her form are bands of color--red, blue, and shades of gray--that add to the painting's eerie affect. Wrapped around the crown of her head, one red, swirling band alludes to the halo so often seen in traditional depictions of the Lady Madonna.

In the frame's bottom left corner, a small figure that is perhaps a fetus or newborn looks out at the viewer with huge eyes devoid of pupils. Its arms are crossed over its chest and its lower body trails off like a vapor. A slight downward turn of the figure's mouth adds to its pathos.

A red border full of squiggly lines evocative of sperm runs around almost the entire perimeter of the painting; only the bottom of the frame and the area around the small figure are unbounded. The sperm swim clockwise from the small figure around the top of the painting, down the right side, and into the bottom of the black background. Lines trespassing from the border into the Madonna's space suggest movement of the sperm into the nether regions of the Lady--i.e. her genitalia--and imply pregnancy.


Munch painted an oil on canvas work of Madonna from 1893-1894. This colored lithograph and woodcut of Madonna was executed in stages by Munch between 1895 and 1902. It invites the viewer to contemplate the darker, inglorious facets of childbirth. The ghostly depiction of the Madonna and the eerie fetus/infant appear to celebrate death more than life; the wide-eyed frightened fetus seems to ask the viewer, "Why?"

In contrast to the lithograph, Munch's earlier oil on canvas version of Madonna is sensual; the breasts are shown in more detail, Madonna's skin is pastel-flesh colored. The sperm like figures and the fetus image are omitted, so that the painting makes an overall impression of an alluring temptress engrossed by sexuality. This oil painting was exhibited by Munch in Berlin in what he called the "Seeds of Love" section of the "Frieze of Life" cycle paintings. See the National Museum of Norway's online version at:

Compare Munch's depiction of pregnancy in the lithograph with Gustav Klimt's Hope, II, another artwork that investigates the mix of glory and horror that some associate with childbirth (see this database). See also Deidre Scherer's "Child" for its depiction of the pains of children's illness and mortality (part of the series, Surrounded by Family and Friends, annotated in this database).

Primary Source

Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul. Kynaston McShine, ed. (New York: Museum of Modern Art) 2006