The Lonely Ones Analysis – An Oxymoronic Painting By Edvard Munch

Two Human Beings or The Lonely Ones

An oxymoron is a word derived from the Greek language. The word means two words that mean the opposite of each other, placed together. Two Human Beings. The Lonely Ones analysis shows it’s an oxymoronic painting because there are two people together, yet they are lonely. Does it make sense? Let’s analyze the painting, originally named To mennesker. De ensomme.

There is a sense of longing that one gets from this painting. The blue ocean, two people standing on the shore. You can almost feel what these two lonely people are feeling.

The lack of any other human near gives the sense of loneliness. The noise of waves slowly moving towards them, crashing with the rocks. The sound accompanied by white froths forming marks the junction of liquid and solid. The breeze hitting the faces of these two people as they ponder about something important.

This poem gives the viewers a similar feeling. You look back in your life, a deep, emotional pain emerges from your heart. Something feels empty, something feels missing.

Even though you see faces around, there is a lack of familiarity. There is a need for someone but you don’t know who you need. Slowly this uncertainty engulfs you, questioning the possibility of ever finding someone worth living for, someone who makes you afraid to die. 

This is perhaps what Munch wanted us to feel. Perhaps this is what he was feeling. A detailed analysis of this painting reveals a lot about this creation and the creator as well. 

The painting’s creation

Edvard Munch, the creator of this painting, started working on it in 1894, in Berlin. This wasn’t created as a painting but as a woodblock print, much like Hokusai’s Great Waves off Kanagawa. But there was something different about it.

Instead of using a monolithic wood piece, Munch used three separate parts. Here, Munch (the man standing) and the shore which is black colored one. The blue ocean is a separate piece, merging with the shore. The lady wearing white is separate as well.

This was done to make the print method faster. Since this was made using woodblocks, Munch made multiple variations of it, more than 100. The one that you are seeing above (and the cover image of this article) was created in 1899. 

This version is actually the emulation of another painting that was made by Munch earlier but was lost in a shipping accident. But from all the recreations by Munch, one can understand what he wanted us to feel. It was a sense of longing for love and the inability to live that life. We’ll get into that later, first let’s look at the composition of the painting.

Composition of the painting

Two Human Beings or The Lonely Ones painting
Two Human Beings. The Lonely Ones variant. Image: Public Domain

One look at the painting and one can see how blue dominates the print. The ocean has a light blue hue while the shore and Munch himself has a darker, deeper blue, denoting darkness. 

In this mix of dark and light blue where one person is merged, there’s another, a far more striking figure that catches our attention. This is the love interest of Edvard Munch, Millie Thaulow. 

The symmetry 

We’ll get to this mysterious lady named Millie or Milly Thaulow later. First, let’s see the symmetries in this print. The ocean and the shore meet at the middle of the painting, on the horizontal plane. So one can divide the painting into two, the blue ocean and the dark blue shore. 

If you divide the painting into two in a vertical line, you still get a symmetry. Right half gives you Munch with the dark blue tones. The left half gives you the lady clad in white with her sunfire orange hair. 

Woodprint version of Two Human Beings or The Lonely Ones
Woodprint of Two Human Beings. The Lonely Ones. Image: Public Domain

Notice how dividing the painting into both horizontal and vertical planes gives you two equal and opposite objects. This is why this painting captivates the viewers and takes them into the world where Munch once stood. This is what gives this painting the feeling of “everything fits”.

Another noticeable thing here is the way the two human beings are standing. The woman stands straight, facing the ocean. She seems to be unaware of her surroundings, lost in thoughts. She is thinking about herself. 

The man isn’t completely facing the ocean. He’s facing the woman, looking at her. Perhaps he is trying to approach her but stops, gathering the courage to talk to her or to stop himself from doing so. Unlike the woman, he is thinking about her. But what and why? 

The meaning of the painting

To understand what the painting means, we have to take a brief tour of the past, specifically, during the time when Edvard Munch was in love. And how it made him the anxious-ridden and troubled artist. 

To understand the painting, we need to understand the thought process of Munch and the events that lead to that way of thinking. There are five subsections that will help us understand the painting. These are;

  • Spark of love
  • The ashes after fire 
  • Ocean and melancholy 
  • White and red and what you cannot get 
  • Love and the fear of love 

Each of these sections will deal with a particular event of Munch’s life and how that contributed to the creation of this painting. In the end, I’ll bring all these portions together to show the clear picture, the meaning of Two Human Beings. The Lonely Ones.

Spark of love

In 1885, Munch met the wife of Carl Thaulow, Emily Millie Thaulow. A married woman, older than Munch, and far more fascinating than all the other women he had ever met or will meet. She was a charismatic catastrophe of his life. 

We are not going to dive deeper into his love life with Thaulow, as that would be irrelevant to the topic. Suffice it to say that Munch was obsessed with her. She was the love of his life. Yet, in loving and admiring her, he was suffering an unbearable amount of guilt and self-loathing. The woman in this painting is her, Thaulow.

The ashes after fire

Munch never got to live with his mother, so his father and his sister were a major influence in his life. His father’s beliefs had been an impactful influence on his life, and from the accounts, we know that his father was a religious person. 

Perhaps the part about the sin of adultery shattered the mind of Munch. This tussle between the guilt of adultery and the warmth of love placed Munch in a place that caused him immense pain. 

The painting termed Ashes shows a similar story, a depiction of what Munch went through. Although the painting here was created much later, in 1925, the original Ashes was created in 1894, the same time when Two Human Beings. The Lonely Ones was created. 

The Ashes by Edvard Munch
The Ashes by Edvard Munch. Image: Public Domain

In Ashes, you can see Munch cowering, afraid and laden with guilt and shame while the woman stands, rising like fire. Her white dress partially open, her red underdress partially visible. This use of red and white is important and we’ll talk about that later. But first, let’s look at another important color; Blue.

Ocean and melancholy

The ocean in the painting also shows something important. Munch lived in a small seaside town called Åsgårdstrand. Although unconfirmed, I can say that he visited the seaside when he was overwhelmed with melancholy. 

There are five paintings of interest; Melancholy, Separation, Moonlight on the Shore, Mystery of a Summer Night, and Young Woman on the Shore. All these paintings show an ocean and all were created between 1892-1896. This time period was a time when Munch let out his emotions about love and the suffering that came with it through his paintings. 

The painting Separation shows Jappe Nilssen, Munch’s friend sitting by the shore, in a melancholic state. A woman in white stands afar, with a man in black. The woman is Oda Krohg, wife of the painter Christian Krohg. 

Melancholy by Edvard Munch
Melancholy by Edvard Munch. Image: Public Domain

The reason why Nilssen is sad (or jealous) is because there was a love triangle between these three above-mentioned people. It’s a complicated story where this bohemian group (which Nilssen and the two were part of) practiced free-love. 

The point I am trying to get is the ocean represents melancholy, jealousy, longing for someone you can never have. This is the same ocean depicted in Two Human Beings painting. Now, why is the woman wearing white? 

White and red and what you cannot get

There is a reason why women are almost always portrayed either wearing white, red, or black. And this is not just arbitrary. There is a symbolic meaning for it. 

In the paintings of Munch, white-clad ladies usually represent innocence, virginity, or purity. A woman in red represents a sexually active woman, a woman in the peak of her sexual desires. Women wearing black show old age, the lack of sexual attraction, or activities.

What’s more, is how Munch exhibits these women. A woman in white is someone who doesn’t belong to him. She cannot be achieved, she invokes jealousy, helplessness, and a sense of longing. Longing for someone who’s never going to come.

A woman in red is someone Munch can be with. But there is no love, just physical attraction, proximity but no connection. In the painting Dance of Life, Munch can be seen dancing with a girl in a red dress. She is Thaulow. But there’s more.

The Dance of Life painting by Edvard Munch
The Dance of Life by Edvard Munch. He dances, only with the red. Image: Public Domain

One the left, a woman clad in white can be seen. On the right, another woman can be seen, wearing black. Going from left to right, what do we get? Innocence, purity. Then comes sexual devotedness and expressivity. Finally is the old age of marriage and the blandness of life. Munch can only be with the red. He can’t be with the white, doesn’t want to be with the black.

In Ashes, the woman (Thaulow) can be seen with her hair covering her shoulders, right after she and Munch made love. Her white garment is open partially while her red undergarments are partially visible. She is transitioning from virginity to enticing sexuality. 

Love and the fear of love

Munch wanted love, but he was afraid of it. Seeing deaths in his early life had made him anxious, impressionable. And the first love of his life, the true love was born out of adultery, of deceit. This created conflict in his mind.

There was guilt about his first love. This was further enhanced when Thaulow left her husband and married someone else, instead of Munch. Why was he attracted to older women? Not much can be said about it other than the possibility that he needed love and care from someone older than him because of the lack of a mother. 

Separation painting by Edvard Munch
Separation by Edvard Munch. This painting also puts ocean right next to something emotionally painful. Image: Public Domain

This is why he loved someone he knew was wrong. Even though he was letting her commit adultery and was a part of it, he could not help himself and fall for her. The warmth of an older woman.

Munch did not want to get married. This can be seen from his reluctance in meeting Mathilde Larsen, another romantic partner who wanted to marry Munch. He literally kept running from her until they met and something happened between them which we don’t know. 

What we know is there was a gunshot and Munch lost a piece of his finger. Clearly there was something wrong with this relationship. This adds another hint to understanding the painting. Munch was never prepared to have a relationship.

What the painting says

I apologize for making it majorly about the painter, but I think it was necessary. Munch has alway emphasized on painting something he feels, not something he sees. So to understand his paintings, it is imperative to understand his mind, his feelings, his pain and his recluse yet love seeking personality.

Now that you know what events made an impact on his life, it becomes easier to understand the painting. Here’s what it means.

Munch is standing near the seashore of his hometown. The blue sea represents a state of melancholy, both for him and Thaulow. They both are not happy with their lives.

Since Thaulow also loved Munch in a way, she wasn’t happy (in Munch’s mind. We’d never know what she actually thought). What hurt Munch was her reluctance in coming back to him. But there’s more.

She’s wearing a white gown. This shows (as we’ve learnt from other paintings), Munch can’t have her. He knows it. He can only long for her. 

We also see Munch trying to approach her, stopped midway, turned towards her. But he cannot live a married life. In his later life, he’d have many romantic relationships, all ending soon, none long lasting. He can only be with the red woman. Marrying the woman “in red” will make her the one in “black”,

So Munch watches Thaulow while Thaulow watches the sea, in melancholy. Thaulow seeks happiness, Munch seeks happiness as well. Two people standing together, and both are terribly lonely. Two human beings, prone to commit fault under earthly pleasures. Two people, lonely together.

Artsapien’s analysis

I think this painting shows Munch’s philosophy. A sense of relief in seeking something, perhaps never having it. A beautiful sight of seeing someone he can never have, a painting out of a tragedy.

The stillness of the scene is fascinatingly impactful. Two people standing on a shore, looking at the waves crashing. There’s silence, yet their minds have chaotic noise churning their thoughts. Stopped at the uncertainty. The woman in white has someone to fill the loneliness, yet she is unaware of him. The man in black sees her, but she will never be his, he is aware of it.

Munch has always appreciated his demons. His anxiety, his misfortunes have made him. This is another example of that. They cannot be together, so they are together lonely.

You can take a look at a highly detailed digital version of The Lonely Ones here.