This work is registered in the archive of the Munch Museum, Oslo.
This pastel depicts a rare encounter between one of the most important figures in Edvard Munch's iconography from the 1890s, the melancholy man, and a mermaid. The Munch Museum holdings include a closely related, highly finished watercolour executed in 1896, although the basis for the motif and composition predates both of these works.
Munch painted four versions of the motif of a despairing man sitting on a beach, beginning with Melancholy in 1891 (Woll 241, Munch Museum, Oslo; cf. Woll 316, 359-360). That painting is also known as Jeppe on the Beach and Jealousy as the painting was the artist's response to the unhappy love affair between his friend Jappe Nilssen and Oda Lasson Krohg, the wife of the painter and writer Christian Krohg. Christian Krohg described Melancholy as the first symbolist painting by a Norwegian artist (C. Krohg, 'Takk for den gule baaten', 1891, quoted in Eggum 1990 p. 76), and indeed in 1891 Munch used the motif as the basis on his illustrations for Emanuel Goldstein's symbolist collection of poetry, Alruner. Munch painted his last oil on the 'Melancholy' series in 1896, but in the same year he started working on his first woodcuts, which included one of this subject (Woll 91).
Although related to this 'Melancholy' series of prints and oils, the present work differs in two significant ways. Firstly, whilst the oils and prints all depict the man from the left, the present pastel and the watercolour in the Munch Museum depict him from the right, revealing the opposite stretch of beach with what appears to be a church in the background.
More notable still is that both of these works on paper include a mermaid who is absent from the 'Melancholy' series. With this addition, the works strongly evoke a scene in Henrik Ibsen's play, Fruen ved havet (1888). Ibsen's work was an important influence on Munch's imagination during this period, and in 1896 he designed the set for the staging of Peer Gynt in Paris. In the opening scene of Fruen ved havet, the painter Bollestad is working on a painting of 'the fjord there, between the islands...but the figure is still wanting...Here by the rocks in the foreground, a mermaid is to lie, half-dead...She has wandered there from the sea, and can't find her way out again. And so, you see, she lies there dying in the brackish water' (H. Ibsen, Fruen ved havet, Oslo, 1888, Act 1, l. 17-23).
Munch's man and mermaid, however, take opposite roles from those of Ibsen's imagining: here it is the man who suffers, burying his face in his hands, while the mermaid looks up at him with a certain callous disregard for his unhappiness, her tail splashing in the water.