This melancholy portrait was based on Munch's childhood memory of the illness of his sister Sophie. He was just fourteen when she died of tuberculosis. His mother had succumbed to the same disease nine years earlier. In this composition, he focuses directly on the young girl's head and chest—the site of her diseased lungs. Her gaunt face is turned away and she stares off as if into another world.
Munch considered this work—his first attempt at color lithography—to be his best print. He used yellow and gray tones to cast a sickly haze over the scene and red lines to evoke the bloody signs of tuberculosis. He left open areas within and to the right of her face, creating a sense of glowing light that suggests the transcendence of death. Years later Munch said, "Few artists ever experienced the full grief of their subject as I did in The Sick Child."
Gallery label from Edvard Munch: The Scream, October 24, 2012–April 29, 2013.
Born in Scandinavia, a region known for long periods of cold and darkness, Edvard Munch shared the Symbolist mentality of artists and writers from that locale and throughout Europe in the 1890s. He rejected the Impressionist practice of studying effects of light on the external world and instead looked inward to explore themes of love and jealousy, loneliness and anxiety, and sickness and death. His personal history, with the premature loss of his mother and an older sister, as well as complex and unsatisfactory entanglements with women, provided him with a constant source of artistic motifs.
The practices of painting, drawing, and printmaking were intertwined for Munch as he reinvestigated the same themes throughout his career. Printmaking was particularly conducive to this practice since he could save his plates, stones, and woodblocks for reuse time and again. Working with professional printers, or availing himself of a press in his studio, he explored some seven hundred fifty subjects in prints, varying his imagery in nearly thirty thousand impressions. Such experimentation can be seen here in red and black examples of The Sick Child I.
Publication excerpt from Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 44.