The Sick Child (Det Syke Barn): Munch’s Most Important Painting
The painter who was adept in expressing grief and pain through his art, Edvard Munch is known worldwide for his painting Anxiety which depicts a human-like figure standing at a bridge, under a fiery sky, experiencing an anxiety attack. The very same artist has captured a moment of grief in his painting The Sick Child, or Det Syke Barn in Norwegian.
Before the Bohemian painter would paint one of the most famous paintings, he created something from his memory, something that was a great source of grief for him. The Sick Child is a painting depicting a fragment of his memory. It shows the memory of Munch’s elder sister dying of Tuberculosis. But as it is with all his paintings, there are many expressive elements in the painting other than the scene that tell the somber story.
Before we start the analysis of the painting and look at the intricate details, it is imperative to mention that there were many versions of the Sick Child created by Munch in the span of more than four decades. Six known versions are found along with multiple lithographs. While six, each painting differs only slightly.
The Sick Child analysis
The structure of the painting
The painting is made to look the way it is looking purposefully. The right edge of the white pillow divides the canvas into two halves. One side is taken by the sick child and the other side by the grieving adult.
The scene depicts a bedroom for the sick child. There are tables near the foot of the bed, where the viewers are standing. On the right side, there’s a window, the direction in which the girl is looking. The design of the room is of little significance. It is what the two women in the painting are doing, tells the real story.
Analysis of the painting
It is clear to see what the painting is trying to show. It is a moment of imminent loss, the moment of realization that it is time to say goodbye. This is what Munch tried to show in this painting. But there’s more to it.
The most obvious thing about this painting is how it has been painted. The distinct brush strokes made as if the artist took anything that resembled a brush and started painting with hurried strokes have a purpose here. The rough brush strokes make this painting feel like a blurry memory, which is exactly what Munch wanted to show.
Munch’s older sister died of consumption when she was just 15. The Sick Child was Munch’s attempt to bring that memory of losing his sister onto the canvas. The brush strokes create this fading memory effect on the painting as if things are not crystal clear, but the effect is still there.
You can barely see the faces of the two subjects. The painting just shows a younger girl sitting on her bed supported by a large white pillow and an older woman in grief. That’s how memories work, they are not photographic, especially somber ones.
What eyes convey
Although the painting hardly shows the faces of the subjects in detail, one can understand what these two faces are conveying just by looking at them. What’s fascinating about the two subjects is how the roles are reversed, and the effect of age has faded. Let me explain.
The younger child, who is supposed to be Munch’s 15-year old sister has a calm and composed face. She has, like an adult, accepted her fate and is at peace with it. The older woman is the complete opposite in terms of expression.
The older woman in the painting is said to be the aunt of the girl. This is because Munch’s mother (and the sick child’s) already died of consumption. The older woman has not accepted fate. She puts her head down in grief and is not at all ready to let her go.
Apart from the maturity, the young girl seems to be in comfort with her situation. She is looking at the grieving woman and at the window. The reason she is looking outside is that she must have been bedridden for days or even months. Perhaps she is not bothered by the grief or her imminent death because all she wants is to go outside under the sun and play like other kids.
The colors of the painting
The color used in the majority of the canvas also delivers the effect of “sickness”. Notice how the walls are green, the sheets are green and there are hints of red too. These red marks are also on the white pillow. This shade of green in this painting, mixed with red indicates sickness. The green represents mucus, something common in patients with TB.
The red marks are the bloodstains that TB patients get in their clothes and other belongings during the final stages of their condition. The use of this green color, along with a narrow field of vision focusing just on the two subjects, creates a very claustrophobic effect.
But there is also something very subtle at play here. The dresses worn by the two subjects here represent their conditions. The child who’s sick is wearing a dark green dress that matches the wall and the sheets. This shade of green is used to represent sickness.
The older woman is all dressed in black, which is a color of grief. It is as if she is already in mourning. Some part of her has already accepted that the sick child won’t stay with her longer.
Munch made six painted versions of this painting and multiple lithographs. The scene portrayed here was etched into his heart. He wrote later that this painting was the major “breakthrough” in his art. This painting was not received well by the critics. But it didn’t matter because to Munch, it was something that let him express himself and a feeling that he did not know where it was kept.
He chose the style of impressionism to paint this painting, but his expressive ways of creating a painting (to which he later switched) showed how he was meant to be a painter of “expression” of impalpable feelings. His most famous painting, The Scream is a fine example of his capabilities as an expressionist. And all that stemmed from here, this painting.
The Sick Child tells a lot more than just a personal event. It shows hidden grief, the grief that we know we have, but never truly realize how massive its latent part is until we express it. It is a strange concoction of grief, guilt, and pain. And while trying to express the impression of that moment, Munch found out how better he felt while expressing his inner turmoils. And that gave birth to some of the most brilliant paintings and a great, tormented painter.
This concludes the article. But here are some more articles on Edvard Munch’s works that you’ll find fascinating to read: