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

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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. []