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The Sick Child touches on the fragility of life. It draws upon Munch’s personal memories, including the trauma of his sister’s death, and visits to dying patients with his doctor father. He described the 1885 painting as ‘a breakthrough in my art’ and made several subsequent versions, of which this is the fourth.

Acquired by the city of Dresden in 1928, it was displayed in the Gemäldegalerie. A decade later, the Nazis declared that Munch’s art was ‘degenerate’ and, in November 1938, all his works in German public collections were collected in Berlin for auction. The Norwegian dealer Harald Holst Halvorsen secured as many as possible, including The Sick Child, and returned them safely to Oslo. Thomas Olsen bought the painting in 1939 and gave it to the Tate. Norway fell to the Germans in 1940. Looking back, Olsen explained that his gift was stimulated by ‘my knowledge, from talks with Munch, that he felt the need of recognition in Western Europe, especially so after the advent of Hitler.’

April 2005