Melancholy III is the quintessential Munch image, powerfully and profoundly expressing a sentiment which haunted and inspired the artist throughout his life. The sitting figure with the head resting on one hand recalls the classical ‘thinker’ pose and brings to mind Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving Melencolia I of 1514, which perhaps for the first time explicitly connected this pose with the melancholic temperament. It is worth mentioning that both figures, Dürer’s allegorical figure and Munch’s young man, sit by the sea shore - another classical topos of forlornness and longing.
Munch’s present color woodcut, as with his most evocative prints, is universal and personal at the same time. Elizabeth Prelinger perfectly summarized the scene and the events: ‘On the shore at Åsgårdstrand, a village on the Oslo fjord where Munch had a house, sits a despondent man, whom Munch modeled on his friend Jappe Nilssen, the Danish art critic. In the distance, on the dock, are three figures. One is a man carrying oars, and with him are another man and a woman in a white dress who plan to row over to a small island to have a romantic tryst. In reality, Nilssen was involved in a lovers’ triangle with the painter Christian Krohg and Oda Lasson, the woman who would become Krohg’s wife. The situation ended badly for Nilssen, and Munch took advantage of it to make a universal image about the pain caused by love.’ (Prelinger, pp. 193-194).
Jealousy and heartbreak were feelings Munch knew well. His relationships with women were always fraught and usually ended in anger and sorrow – emotions he frequently depicted in his printed oeuvre. Emotionally charged as many of his prints are, few of them have the same visual clarity and depth of feeling as Melancholy III.
It is a deceptively simple image, yet Munch’s method is remarkably complex: it is printed from two woodblocks, the key block and the color block, which Munch cut with the fretsaw into three separate pieces, allowing him to vary the colors and print them in a different order. As a result, no two impressions are alike, and some differ radically in effect and mood. While for example the impression in the Campbell Collection (Prelinger no. 46, p. 193) is printed in bright yellow in the sky, with the ground and the sea almost black, giving the impression of a sunset, the present impression, with its dominant brown tone and pale bluish-grey sky, suggests a night scene, bathed in the faint, diffused light of a Nordic summer night.