Between 1893 and 1910 Norwegian artist Edvard Munch created four similar compositions commonly referred to as The Scream. Each piece features a hairless figure standing on a bridge beneath a fiery orange sky wearing an agonized expression.
In 1893 Munch created two versions of The Scream. He painted one with tempera on cardboard and drew the other with crayon on cardboard. Of the two pieces, the tempera version is arguably the most famous and is currently owned by the National Gallery in Oslo. The crayon version, currently on view at the Munch Museum in Oslo, is significantly less vibrant and refined suggesting this is the first rendition in the famous series.
In 1895 Munch completed his third rendering in pastel on cardboard. This is the only version of The Scream to include a hand-painted frame on which the artist wrote a poem. Additionally, this is the only privately owned version of The Scream. It sold for just under $120 million at Sotheby’s in May 2012 to American businessman Leon Black.
Munch completed the fourth and final version of The Scream much later in 1910. Some believe Munch revisited The Scream series due to the popularity of his earlier paintings. In this piece, Munch used tempera, oil and crayon on cardboard to execute his iconic figure. The Munch Museum in Oslo currently owns this piece.
As you may have noted, Munch primarily used cardboard in lieu of canvas. Originally this was out of necessity; canvas was expensive and early in his career Munch could not afford it. Later, the artist continued to use cardboard as he had grown accustomed to its unique texture.
Inspiration and Meaning
These four pieces were originally part of Munch’s larger Frieze of Life series, which frequently featured emotional themes such as love, death and anxiety.
The Scream, which signified despair, was the final piece in the Love theme. In his writing, Munch admits his family and he struggled with mental health issues. In fact, his sister was hospitalized for insanity while Munch completed his first iteration of The Scream.
The Scream gives the viewer a glimpse of Munch’s inner conflict and mental health struggles demonstrating his feelings of anxiety and isolation through the faceless figure in the piece. The artist’s inspiration for the painting came during a walk, during which Munch became overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety as the Norwegian sky turned blood red at sunset. The artist later wrote that he felt “an infinite scream passing through nature”.
Unfortunately, The Scream has been the target of several high profile thefts. In 1994, the National Gallery in Oslo was raided and the 1893 tempera painted version of The Scream was stolen. Luckily, it was recovered several months later.
In 2004 both Munch’s The Scream and Madonna were stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo in one of the most audacious art thefts of all time. Again, both pieces were thankfully recovered; this time two years later.