Although Munch was just thirty-one years old when he created this self-portrait, he represented himself as a spectral figure, with bones at the bottom of the picture serving as a memento mori, or reminder of death. They are balanced by the artist's name and the date at the top of the image; together these details turn it into a kind of tombstone, or sepulchral tablet.
Munch later stated, "Sickness, insanity, and death were the dark angels standing guard at my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life." The darkness of the background allows the bones to appear to be those of the subject's arm, leaning on the picture's frame. The severed, floating head was a familiar motif in art around the turn of the twentieth century, signifying a split between the physical and spiritual worlds.