Edvard Munch’s Use and Abuse of Alcohol

Fig. 1. Edvard Munch, Hans Jæger (1889), oil on canvas, 109 x 84 cm (Woll 174). The National Museum, Oslo, NG.M.00485.

In the second half of the 19th century, drinking was acknowledged as a serious social problem in Norway, and a temperance movement was gaining strength in many parts of the country. The trouble was mainly regarded as affecting the lower classes, however, and while regulations were introduced to control the sale of spirits, the bourgeoisie remained free to enjoy their wine. Toward the end of the century, drinking also began to be regarded as an individual problem.

Edvard Munch, born in 1863, was introduced to alcohol before the age of 16, both as medicine and for pleasure. His father, who was a military doctor and a strictly religious man, frequently prescribed a good glass of port to regain strength after an illness. As an adult, Munch himself recommended the remedy to his aunt and sisters, and several times arranged for wine to be sent to them at home. On special occasions the Munch family enjoyed punches or sherry, and when the young Edvard joined his father at military camps during the summer, they were often served wine at dinner.1

Fig. 2. Edvard Munch, The Absinth Drinkers (1890), pastel on canvas, 58 x 96 cm (Woll 217). Private collection.

As a young artist in Kristiania, as Oslo was called until 1925, Munch began drinking on a regular basis as part of the social scene in which he participated. In the 1880s many leading Norwegian artists had returned from Germany and France to settle in the capital, a rapidly growing city with a youthful population. Artists, writers and students gathered in cafés and private lodgings, discussing art and politics in loud voices late into the night. Their leading figure was Hans Jæger, whose novel Fra Kristiania-bohêmen (From the Kristiania Bohemians) gave this group of radical intellectuals its name. Published shortly before Christmas in 1885, Jæger’s book was immediately banned for obscenity.2

The Bohemians’ favorite drink was the highball (pjolter in Norwegian), a rather new invention; together with cigarette smoking, pjolter drinking marked them as modern and progressive.3 The Kristiania bohemians furthermore advocated free love, which caused many clashes with Norway’s conservative bourgeoisie. (Jæger also dreamed of establishing a school for young girls where they would be trained in sexual activity free of the moralizing of religion and society.) Though Munch was in no way the most active or influential member of this group, it constituted his circle of friends and acquaintances during his formative years.

Fig. 3. Edvard Munch, The Day After (1894), drypoint and open bite, image 19.6 x 28 cm, sheet 44.9 x 63 cm (Schiefler 15, Woll 10). Printed by Angerer or Sabo. Reversed replica of an 1894 painting in The National Museum, Oslo. The Munch Museum, Oslo, MM G 014-34.

In December 1883 Munch turned 20, and though he had debuted as a painter earlier that year, he was still living with his family and unable to support himself. By and by he did receive a few small grants, however, that enabled him to rent a studio and gave him greater freedom to socialize with other young artists. In early 1886 he met Jæger, whose portrait he painted three years later, showing him lonesome and withdrawn, sitting in hat and coat in the corner of a sofa (Fig. 1). On the table in front of him stands the typical pjolterglass.

Between 1885 and 1888 Munch made several paintings evoking bohemian life: interior scenes with men drinking, studying or seducing young women. He also painted the first version (now lost) of his well-known pictures showing a half-dressed woman passed out on a bed: The Day After. He later remade many of these compositions as graphic works.

Fig. 4. Edvard Munch, detail of Kristiania Bohemians I (1895), etching and drypoint, hand-colored with watercolor, image 21 x 28.8 cm, sheet: 35 x 51.1 cm (Schiefler 10, Woll 15). Printed by Felsing, probably after 1902. Reversed replica of an 1887-88. lost painting. The Munch Museum, Oslo, MM G 009-2.

In 1889 a state scholarship enabled Munch to go to Paris for further studies. For some months he lived in Saint-Cloud just outside of Paris, renting a room above a local café. Here he made some amusing pictures of guests in the bar, using a popular realist style slightly influenced by Jean-Francois Raffaëlli, unusual in Munch’s oeuvre. The same year, he made a pastel on canvas of two men sitting at a table with a bottle and two glasses containing a greenish liquid. Munch originally called the painting L’Absinthe, but before it could be shown at the autumn exhibition in Kristiania it was sold to the American collector Richard A. McCurdy, who insisted the title be changed to Une Confession.4 (Fig. 2) He gave no reason, but was likely motivated by the reputation of absinthe as a particularly pernicious and destructive drink. The man in the foreground of Munch’s picture has been identified as the Norwegian writer and art critic Jappe Nilssen, and it has been suggested that the other might be Jæger, since both were in Paris in 1890. Absinthe was popular among the artists of Paris and also familiar to the Scandinavians. Munch mentioned it in a couple of letters, and in a draft letter to his fiancée, Tulla Larsen, asked her to “Drink a glass of absinthe for me in Paris.”5 But there are no indications that absinthe ever played a central part in Munch’s drinking habits, as it did for some of the great French artists.

Fig. 5. Edvard Munch, Kristiania Bohemians II (1895), etching and drypoint, image 27.5 x 37.5 cm, sheet 44.5 x 62.3 cm (Schiefler 11, Woll 16). Printed by Felsing, probably after 1902. The Munch Museum. Oslo, MM G 010-16.

After the succès de scandale of his solo exhibition in Berlin 1892, Munch made the city his primary domicile for several years. In late autumn 1894 he took up printmaking, presumably with the hope of making some money and reaching a larger audience than he could with his paintings. He probably discussed the possibility of publishing a small portfolio with the young German art critic Julius Meier-Graefe, one of the founders of the art and literary magazine PAN, which promoted the revival of printmaking. Most of Munch’s early graphic works repeated the compositions of his paintings but were executed with an impressive technical mastery. Among his subjects were bohemian motifs from the 1880s such as The Day After (Fig. 3), Tête-à-tête and Kristiania Bohemians I (1887–88) (Fig. 4). This last painting was unfortunately destroyed in a ship fire in 1907, but according to Jens Thiis—a friend who authored several essays and an extensive book about Munch’s life and art—the print reiterates the composition of the painting.6

The etching, which was executed in three states with corrections in drypoint, shows four men sitting at a table filled with glasses and bottles as cigarette smoke floats above their heads. The painting had been commissioned as a kind of group portrait by the Norwegian writer and director Axel Maurer, who appears in the center, and represents a realistic rendering of an ordinary situation in Kristiania in the late 1880s. In the etching, Munch has depicted himself in the lower left corner, pulling on the cigarette that causes the circles of smoke. In a later hand-colored impression, he has painted one of the bottles a poisonous green, perhaps a confirmation that absinthe was also drunk in Kristiania.7

Fig. 6. Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with a Bottle of Wine (1906), oil on canvas, 110.5 x 120.5 cm (Woll 688). The Munch Museum, Oslo, MM M 543.

At the same time he made this print in Berlin in 1895, Munch made another, similar etching that has no predecessor in his painting. The subject is much the same: a group of men sitting around a table, drinking and smoking (Fig. 5). But in this image, a woman stands at the far end of the table, and the men’s faces are closer to caricatures than portraits. Again, the figures can all (or almost all) be identified through other works by Munch and outside sources. The woman bears an unmistakable likeness to Christian Krohg’s portrait of his wife, Oda,8 and except for Munch, who has once more drawn himself as an interested observer in the lower left, all the men shown are reported to have had a sexual relationship with her.9

The composition is not a realistic café scene but a symbolic rendering of a situation observed by Munch over the previous ten years. His surroundings in Berlin were not all that different from what he knew from Kristiania, and to a certain extent even included the same people, gathered together at their favorite Berlin café, dubbed zum schwartzen Ferkel (the Black Piglet) by the Swedish author August Strindberg. Christian and Oda Krohg had come to Berlin in 1893, along with the author Gunnar Heiberg, who was Oda’s lover at the time.

The character of the femme fatale was a recurrent theme among the leading men in Munch’s circle of friends in Berlin, most notably Strindberg and the Polish writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski. It is unclear how fully Munch shared their misogynist views, though there are several examples of this attitude in his art from the mid-1890s.

Fig. 7. Edvard Munch, The Death of the Bohemian (1915–17), oil on canvas,12.5 x 24.4 cm (Woll 1166). The Munch Museum, Oslo, MM M 377.

Munch’s own difficult experiences with women were the basis of many of his most important themes. His relationship with Tulla Larsen, whom he met in 1898, ended dramatically in 1902 with a pistol shot to his left hand, damaging two of his fingers.10 During his years with Larsen, Munch increasingly turned to alcohol to calm his nerves—an expedient that only intensified after they broke up. The years between 1902 and 1908 were marked by unpleasant episodes in which he quarreled with people, got into fights and suffered from severe attacks of angst and paranoia. A revealing self-portrait, painted in 1906, shows the artist sitting alone in a restaurant with an empty plate, a glass and a wine bottle in front of him (Fig. 6).

German friends such as Max Linde, Gustav Schiefler, Albert Kollmann and Herbert Esche worried about Munch and urged him to abstain. He visited several sanatoriums and baths, trying to get his agitated state under control, but without any lasting improvement. Yet in letters and notes from this period he described his drinking as a secondary problem—”ein Nebenteufel” (an adjacent devil), as he put it.11 In Munch’s opinion, his main difficulty lay in the bad nerves he believed he had inherited from his father’s family, which had affected him all his life. Alcohol was the “medicine” that helped him survive and work, and it’s true that these years were surprisingly productive, laying the foundation for his German and international recognition. He developed a solid network of supporters and was commissioned to provide sketches for Max Reinhardt’s productions of plays by Ibsen, to paint decorations for the foyer in his theater, and to execute portraits of many important German men and women. He also had great success as a printmaker.

Fig. 8. Edvard Munch, The Wedding of the Bohemian (1929–30), transfer lithograph, image 34 x 49 cm, sheet 50 x 70.4 cm (Woll 702). Printed by
Nielsen. Replica of a 1925–26 painting of in the Munch Museum. The Munch Museum, Oslo, MM G 537-5.

His anxiety and alcohol abuse nevertheless grew worse. Eventually Munch became seriously worried about his sanity, but his fear of being locked up in a madhouse prevented him from seeking professional help. In September 1908 he expressed these thoughts to his old friend Harald Nørregaard in several letters written from various restaurants. The answer he received was down-to-earth: “Your fear that there are forces in motion to put you into a mental asylum is indeed only sickly brain spin, reinforced by the consequences of alcohol abuse.”12

Finally, a severe attack—what would today be called acute psychosis—forced him to contact Dr. Daniel Jacobson’s clinic in Copenhagen. In addition to his psychiatric woes, one of Munch’s legs was partially paralyzed, probably the result of the heavy drinking that had preceded the crisis.13 During the several months he spent at the clinic, Munch had to abstain from alcohol and tobacco (though a nurse caught him red-handed with a cigarette).14 Munch remained a teetotaler long after he left Dr. Jacobson and returned to Norway in 1909. He now realized the dangers of drinking, but at the same time expressed concern about how he would manage without “the support of the vine.”15

Fig. 9. Edvard Munch, Self-portrait with a Bottle of Wine (1930), lithograph, image 41.8 x 50.5 cm, sheet 50.3 x 60.5 cm (Woll 712). Printed by Nielsen. Reversed replica of a 1906 painting in the Munch Museum. The Munch Museum, Oslo, MM G 492-19.

In 1910 the old leader of the Kristiania bohemians, Hans Jæger, died, surrounded by a few friends. Munch was not among them, but their mutual friend Jappe Nilssen probably told him about it. Five years later, Munch painted the first of a series of pictures entitled Death of the Bohemian, which comes close to the somewhat bizarre scene described by Nilssen’s niece many years later: Jæger, dying of cancer, had been taken out of hospital in accordance with his wishes and placed in private lodgings; as he was drawing his last breath, a woman was running around looking for some money she claimed he owed her, and a drunken painter was trying to get into the room in search of a bottle of whisky.16 In Munch’s painting a man is lying in bed, one woman sits turned toward him, while another has thrown herself upon the bed (Fig. 7). One man is standing, two are sitting at the table strewn with glasses and bottles; a further row of bottles can be seen on the floor.

In the mid-1920s, Munch made another series of “bohemian” paintings titled Wedding of the Bohemian. The composition is reminiscent of the etching Kristiania-bohemians II, but now the woman is seated at the table rather than standing, and is courted by two of the men present at the occasion.

Fig. 10. Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with Bottles (ca. 1938), oil on canvas, 93 x 118 cm (Woll 1748). The Munch Museum, Oslo, MM M 043.

In his later years, Munch grew concerned with his past and wrote several autobiographical notes, trying to explain the most important events in his life and their impact on his art. In 1929 he published a small pamphlet, Livsfrisens tilblivelse (The Creation of the Frieze of Life),17 and he seems to have had plans for an illustrated autobiography. It may be significant that in 1929–30 he used lithography to reconsider Death of the Bohemian, Wedding of the Bohemian (Fig. 8), and Self-portrait with a Bottle of Wine (Fig. 9). By this time the bohemian life, the cafés and heavy drinking lay far in the past, but he was fully aware of the impact this period and its activities had exerted on the development of his art. As we have seen, alcohol played a vital part in his earlier life, but if we are to believe his own notes, he did not use alcohol as a stimulus for his creative ability.

Though eventually Munch found that he was able to enjoy a glass of wine without falling back into old habits, a late self-portrait seems to allude to his earlier dependency with ironic humor (Fig. 10). Johan H. Langaard dates the picture to Munch’s 75th birthday in 1938, when the artist received a large amount of wine in celebration.((The dating is uncertain, but Johan H. Langaard, who called the painting The Alchemist, dated it to 1938, referring to a gift for Munch’s birthday. Johan H. Langaard, Edvard Munchs Selvportretter (Oslo: publisher tk, 1947), 161.)) Here Munch has painted himself standing in front of a battery of bottles, obviously unable to make a choice.

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  1. The sources for this information are Munch’s correspondence and notes, most of which have been published on http://www.emunch.no. See, e.g., MM K 4978, letter from Christian Munch 1879; MM N 732, letter from Munch to Karen Bjølstad 1884; MM K 4522, letter from Karen Bjølstad 1895. []
  2. Fra Kristiania-bohêmen was published by Jæger’s own publishing house on 11 Dec 1885 and immediately confiscated by the police, but several copies were shared among friends and subscribers. []
  3. Patricia G. Berman, “Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait with Cigarette: Smoking and the Bohemian Persona,” Art Bulletin 4, 1993: 627–646. []
  4. Letter from Richard A. McCurdy, dated 15 Sept 1890. He accepted the price of 300 kroner, on the condition that, among other things, “It shall be exhibited under the title of ‘Confession’—instead of ‘L’Absinthe.’” Original in the Munch Museum, Oslo. []
  5. Drafted letter to Tulla Larsen, 1899. Original in the Munch Museum (MM N 1807). []
  6. Jens Thiis, Edvard Munch og hans samtid (Oslo: publisher tk, 1933), 142n2 and illustration on 169. The painting (Woll 151) originally belonged to the man depicted in the center, Axel Maurer, who sold it to the collector Rasmus Meyer in Bergen in 1906. On the journey to Bergen, after an exhibition in Copenhagen, the ship Lindholmen caught fire on 3 January 1907. There are no known photos of the painting. In addition to the etching, Munch repeated the motif in another painting, probably because of the destruction of the first version (Woll 792). []
  7. This impression was printed by Felsing, whom Munch probably started using in 1902. See Gerd Woll, Edvard Munch: Complete Graphic Works (London: Philip Wilson, 2012), 19. []
  8. Christian Krohg, Portrait of the Painter Oda Krohg (1888). The National Museum, Oslo. http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/no/object/NG.M.02147. []
  9. Seen from left to right around the table, the following people have been identified: Munch, Christian Krohg (who married Oda in 1888), Jappe Nilssen, Oda Krohg, Hans Jæger, Gunnar Heiberg, and possibly Oda’s first husband, Jørgen Engelhardt. []
  10. The relationship between Munch and Tulla (Mathilde) Larsen has been described by many authors, e.g., Atle Næss, Munch: Eine Biografie (Berlin: Berlin University Press, 2015), 199–241. []
  11. Undated draft letters to Herbert Esche, 1906, originals in the Munch Museum (MM N 2204 and 2209). []
  12. Letter from Harald Nørregaard, 1 Oct 1908, original in the Munch Museum (MM K 812). []
  13. Atle Næss explains that this phenomenon is widespread in connection to excessive alcohol consumption and is known as “Saturday night paralysis.” Næss, 385. He also gives a detailed description of Munch’s breakdown and stay at the clinic: 383–389. See also Gry Hedin, “Edvard Munch and Contemporary Psychology,” in Munch and Denmark (Oslo: Ordrupgaard and Munch-museet, 2009). []
  14. Undated draft letter to Thorolf Holmboe, November 1908, original in the Munch Museum (N 1730). []
  15. Letter to Hanni Esche, 7 July 1909, original in private collection, copy in the Munch Museum; and letter to Ernest Thiel, 8 Aug 1909, original in the Thiel Gallery, copy in the Munch Museum. []
  16. Erna Homboe Bang, “Bohemens død,” Dagbladet, 14 Jan 1933. Her uncle had described the scene to her, and even if she exaggerated some details, the atmosphere corresponds convincingly to Munch’s painting. []
  17. Edvard Munch, Livsfrisen tiblivelse, ca. 1928 (MM UT 13). []