'The only influences in The Sick Child were my home; my home was to my art as the midwife is to her children. I remember it well - those were the days of pillows, of sickbeds, of feather quilts. But I firmly believe that scarcely any of these painters has ever experienced the full grief of their subject as I did in The Sick Child. Because it was not just I who was suffering then: it was all my nearest and dearest as well.'
(Edvard Munch to Jens Thiis, quoted in: The Symbolist prints of Edvard Munch, Elizabeth Prelinger and Michael Parke-Taylor, Yale University Press, 1996.)
This extract demonstrates the extent to which Munch was traumatised in his early life, specifically by the early deaths of his mother in 1868 and his elder sister in 1877 when the artist was only fourteen; both succumbed to tuberculosis. The impact of these events was so profound that they surfaced again and again in his work, in both paintings and prints. His first attempt was the painting now in the National Gallery, Oslo, executed in 1885-86. He returned to the theme again eight years later in drypoint (Woll 7), one of his first attempts at printmaking. Two years later, in 1896, Munch took it up again in the present work, his first colour lithograph. Here the focus is sharper, with all extraneous detail removed - particularly the bedroom furniture and the grieving woman (although in some impressions of this print a similar figure has been added in watercolour to the right.) All that remains is the gaunt face, flattened against an expanse of white suggesting the pillow, and the upper chest, the location of the disease. The hapless figure's gaze is now directed at a looming black form at the right, an unambiguous metaphor for the approach of death. By way of subtle reinforcement, the only other element, not immediately recognizable, is a scythe-like motif snaking across the top of the image. Munch considered this his most successful print, one in which he stared unflinchingly at the demons that had haunted him since childhood.
As with many of his important graphic works, Munch experimented with colour - both printed and applied by hand - as a way to alter the psychological mood. Impressions are known in a variety of combinations; from a single stone in black or red, up to five stones, in black, two types of red, blue and yellow. The present version is considered one of the most successful. The acidic yellow mimics the weak light of a kerosene lamp bathing the figure in an unhealthy glow, the deep red simulates blood ebbing away towards the lower left and, to the right of her face, flecks of the same red stain the pillow.