Munch Needed Help

“We all go a little mad sometimes…” Edvard Munch embodies this line uttered by Norman Bates about his ill mother. Munch was a Norwegian artist best known for Der Schrei der Natur (or The Scream), a painting referenced heavily by popular culture. Viewers witness Munch’s anxiety in the work, sensing human misery. During his early career, Munch’s deterioration introduced him to Dr. Daniel Jacobsen, but their relationship was unlike Goya and Arrieta.

Edvard Munch (hereinafter Munch) was born December 12, 1863 in Løten, Norway to Christian Munch and Laura Bjølstad. Christian Munch was a physician and medical officer for the military when he married Laura. Due to Christian’s position, the family relocated frequently. Munch was ill throughout childhood, struck with chronic asthmatic bronchitis and several spells of rheumatic fever as a child. In 1868, Laura succumbed to tuberculosis and passed away, leaving her husband a heartfelt letter and five children. Laura’s sister, Karen, moved in with the family to assist Christian.

The family soon settled in Grünerløkka around 1875. Christian set up a private practice in the poor and industrialized, eastern part of the city to boost his income from the army. The family was not very financially secure. Christian showed compassion for his patients who had little or no money to pay for his services, which he cared for regardless of compensation.

Tragically in 1877, Munch’s older sister, Johanne Sophie, died from tuberculosis. This event was the subject of his 1885 painting The Sick Child, which he considered “a breakthrough” in his art. In this painting, Munch uses color and line to express sadness with the death of his sister. When reflecting back before moving to Grünerløkka, Munch wrote, “We were healthy there and should never have left [Pilestredet]…”

In 1889, Christian Munch passed away. In response, Munch wrote,

“I lead my life in the company of the dead — my mother, my sister, my grandfather and my father — above all with him — all the memories — the smallest of details, return to me.”

The death of his loved ones burdened Munch mentally, as it would anyone. During the 1890’s, Munch established himself within the art circles of Berlin, Germany, though not well recieved. In 1902, he suffered trauma to his left hand from the result of gunshot wound by Mathilde “Tulla” Larsen, daughter to a prominent wine merchant he had been dating. Needless to say, the relationship ended. Munch wore gloves to conceal his injury, serving as a constant reminder of “three bad years” of his life. As an aside, Munch could not bear to look at human hands after this incident, citing, “There is nothing more naked or more disgusting than hands.”

Around the late summer of 1908, Munch’s anxiety began to overwhelm him, compounded by alcohol abuse and the tradgedy faced earlier in life, resulting in physcial episodes of paralysis. He wrote down, “My condition was verging on madness—it was touch and go.” At this point, Munch enters Dr. Jacobsen’s clinic, and spends eight months under the doctor’s care. Electrotherapy (not shock therapy) was used at this time, and Munch was subjected to this treatment. He sketched the scene, along with himself, Dr. Jacobsen, and Nurse Schacke (seen above). The sketch reads,

“Professor Jacobsen is electrifying the famous painter Munch, and is bringing a positive masculine force and a negative feminine force to his fragile brain.”

Ms. Schacke was the subject of a series of engravings by Munch, titled The Nurse. Munch also painted a fauvist-like portrait of himself, and a series of three portraits of Dr. Jacobsen.

The full-length portraits of Dr. Jacobsen highlight an intriguing, common doctor-patient relationship. Dr. Jacobsen is portrayed in a regal stance, no doubt influnced by the Whitehall Mural portraits of King Henery VIII by Hans Holbein. There is no need to interpret the painting, Munch does so himself. He wrote,

“Jacobsen was a fine physician. He walked around like a pope among white nurses and pale patients. The food was white too—everything was white except Jacobsen. I wanted to say something too, so I asked him to pose for me…I have put him in the flames of hell. He stands looking down as a pope upon his white-clad nurses and us, the pale, sick ones…When I was painting him, Jacobsen begged for mercy and he became as gentle as a dove.”

Munch sought refuge in his artwork while in the hospital, similar to Vincet van Gogh while in Auvers-sur-Oise. There is a very convincing enjoyment Munch received from painting Dr. Jacobsen. In Munch’s view, he was turning the tables on the doctor. Jacobsen, by Munch’s account, behaved as a patient might while undergoing treatment. In fact, Munch wrote, “When I painted I was the master. I felt that I dominated him, who had dominated me.”

In response to his portrait, Dr. Jacobsen was puzzled. He conversed with Ludvig Karsten, a painter and friend of Munch, about the painting stating, “Frankly, I think he’s pretty far gone, don’t you?” Karsten reacted by falling on his knees in praise of the work.

In the end, Munch and Dr. Jacobsen understood one another. Despite personal opinions, Munch got well and followed the treatment plan outlined by Dr. Jacobsen, including “tobacco-free cigars, alcohol-free drinks, and poison-free women.” Munch was careful not to reveal too much of his inner “weakness” to the doctor, wanting to retain the secrets in his mind, saying,

“My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistringuishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

The portraits of Dr. Jacobsen were produced more theraputically than gratuitously. Munch did not share the same relationship with his doctor as Goya or Wood. Upon leaving the hospital, Munch and Jacobsen did not maintain a relationship. Sources state that 20 years Munch and Jacobsen ran into each other on the street, Munch almost did not recognize him.

The doctor-patient relationship between Munch and Dr. Jacobsen is one which is still apparent today. Taking this interaction at face value we see that Dr. Jacobsen may have cured Munch, he did not heal him. Munch had personal reasons for not exposing too much, the proliferation of his art, but how many patients leave their physician’s office wanting to turn the tables on their doctor, like Munch?

There are many facets which wedge between the doctor-patient relationship, but there is still some wiggle room to connect with our patients, if ever so briefly. These moments, which may not translate to cures, certainly do heal, and any opportunity that can heal, should be nurtured.

Park, M. P. “The Fine Art of Patient-doctor Relationships.”Bmj 329.7480
       (2004): 1475-480. Print.
Prideaux, Sue. Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005. Print.
Rousselot, Jean. Medicine in Art. 1st ed. Milan: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Print.
“The Life of Edvard Munch.” Munch Museet. Web. 02 Apr. 2012.
Tuchman, Phyllis. “A Portrait of Grief.” Obit. 19 Apr. 2009. Web. 02 Apr. 2012.


  1. another well written very thoughtful post. Interesting to consider the difference between healing and curing. Not sure about the links with Holbin’s portrait – it is just a pose,. and is HenryVIII the only man in history to allegedly get syphilis from his own brother?

    1. Thanks! I think it is more than just a pose since full length portraits were reserved for those with high status, like Louis XIV/XV or George Washington. Munch used this pose for a purpose. As for the syphilis, your guess is as good as mine! Interesting fact though.

  2. Your posts are always so bright as your mind seems to be!!! Congrats!
    It’s quite a pleasure reading you! I’ve been learning a lot through your great, creative and original articles and, naturally, from you.
    Munch’s awareness is quite something, regarding his sickness and the “impossibility” of a cure.
    And his words say it all: “My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistringuishable from me, and their distruction would destroy my art.”
    Ironically so it seems to be. Certain sensitive souls tend to develop diseases ’cause they don’t fit in this world. However, if they weren’t the way they are, they would never be artists, they would never be able to see their surroundings, other human beings, or even themselves with the same eyes… the eyes of sensitivity right on the surface of their skin.
    Correct me if I’m wrong. That’s how I feel myself, somehow. And it hurts so damn much. But I wouldn’t be but “just another woman surviving”, not living.

    Thank you!

    Love from


    1. Such thoughtful insight! I agree Munch’s ability to perceive his own illness as it relates to his art is remarkable. Thankfully, he wrote about his life enough so we can try to peer inside his mind. Thanks for reading!

      1. And I always do. I share it, too! Hope you don’t mind!
        You’ve just awaken my love for Munch and I’ve just gathered some of his favourite works.
        The post I’m working on right now on my blog is precisely on some of the pictures I like most.
        It’s so great when someone like you (and other someones) wake(s) us a bit up to improve our knowledge on different matters! There’s always more and more we can learn and it seems never to be enough…
        Thank you so much!


  3. Reblogged this on nós.

  4. I did my senior thesis in college on Edvard Munch. Such a tortured soul. I’ve loved his work since I first saw Der Schrei der Natur. Great post, Thanks for Sharing

  5. I am one of the fortunate humans to have a primary care physician who cares about me as a whole person. I had a near-death illness this summer which drove that home more than ever. Unrelated to that, just two days ago, I wrote my doctor that I had decided against following a prescription he had given me, something I had never even considered doing. I explained my reasons. He wrote back saying he understood my logic and thought my decision was well-founded. I was so moved that I replied to him that I blessed the day our paths had ever crossed.

    I think you must be that sort of physician, Michael.

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