fb-pixel Skip to main content
Frame by Frame

In a world aflame with yearning

Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting “Summer Night’s Dream (The Voice)” is at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting “Summer Night’s Dream (The Voice)” is at the Museum of Fine Arts.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There is an unlikely connection in modern art among childhood, creativity, and sickness. It appears in modernity’s infancy, in the writing of Charles Baudelaire, who intuited a link among childhood, creative genius, and convalescence.

The link is there, too, in the Symbolist art of Van Gogh and Gauguin, both of whom spent inordinate amounts of time recovering (or trying to recover) from illness. And it reappears in the early work of Henri Matisse.

Matisse’s obsession with color and paint caught fire during his own convalescence from a nervous breakdown. And his boldest early experiments were mysteriously intertwined with the poor health of his fragile, beloved daughter, Marguerite.


Illness is the mysterious source, too, of the art of Edvard Munch, whose 1893 painting “Summer Night’s Dream (The Voice)” is at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Munch’s ailing mother died when he was 5. He lost his adored older sister, Johanne Sophie, to tuberculosis during his own early adolescence. Picasso, by the way, also lost a sister early on, to diphtheria, with profound consequences for his creative psychology.

Munch was sickly himself. He spent much of his youth, including the period of his sexual awakening, confined to his family home, a place of mourning and religious piety (his grief-stricken father was very devout), which seemed to double as a permanent sickroom.

The family home was also where he learned to draw. In resolving to become a painter, he decided he would arrive at originality by painting his own life.

This painting, one of the earliest in “The Frieze of Life,” the series that made him famous, shows a rigidly frontal young woman in a forest by the water. The strong verticals of the tree trunks echo the column-like apparition of the low moon reflecting off the water. Another light source illuminates the girl from the left.


The dramatic landscape around Oslo is recognizable in many of Munch’s greatest paintings, including “The Scream.” Here, the forest, probably at Borre, which is across the inlet from Oslo, was well known as a rendezvous for lovers.

The title tells us we are looking at a dream. As in so many adolescent dreams, this one seems to douse the promise of bliss in paralyzing anxiety.

The long summer nights of Norway can seem to arrest time: The descending sun hovers over the horizon as if in a state of permanent hesitation.

Convalescence can be the same: You spend the days in bed as well as the nights. One day bleeds into another. You have thoughts and dreams but are incapable of acting on them. Indolence — a luxurious state — alternates with torpor, which is not.

And isn’t adolescence the same, too?

What sorts of dreams does a creative young man, hungry for love, sex, and originality, have in such a state? Dreams like this picture, perhaps, where nothing is quite resolved; everything is in transition; and the very world is aflame with yearning.


By Edvard Munch. At: Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267- 9300, www.mfa.org

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.