Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Edvard Munch's Mermaid

New Munch Acquisition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

On view in Gallery 158


The Museum has recently acquired Mermaid (1896), a hauntingly beautiful painting by the Norwegian Symbolist artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Munch’s Mermaid was received as a gift from an anonymous donor. The large and little-known work from the artist’s most intense period was painted in Paris for the Oslo home of a Norwegian industrialist. The painting has never been on public display in a museum before and is now on view in Gallery 158.

Munch occupies a central place in the development of modern art. His works play a crucial role in the Symbolist movement at the turn of the 20th century, giving voice to unconscious aspects of the human psyche and emotion. He is considered one of the pivotal figures to translate turn-of-the-century French art into a Northern idiom, and gave inspiration to German Expressionism. While the Museum has an important collection of his prints, Mermaid is the first painting by Munch to enter the collection.

Norse myths of mermaids focused upon the melancholy experience of a creature that could not live comfortably either in the sea or on land. Munch was probably influenced by these traditional stories and also by a play, The Lady from the Sea (1888) written by Munch’s famous literary compatriot Henrik Ibsen. Mermaid captures a moment evocative of this Norse mythology. Seen in the light of the full moon suspended low over the sea, a haunting figure with flowing auburn hair is rendered in warm tones and raises herself from a recumbent position to approach the shore. With the curve of her tail, she breaks the moon’s long, vertical reflection--a signature motif in Munch’s work--to create a turbulence highlighted with gold in the sea of cool blues, purples, greens and grays.

In 1896, industrialist Axel Heiberg commissioned Munch to paint Mermaid as a mural for his house near Oslo. The painting was prominently located, high on a wall, with the canvas shaped to fit beneath the sloping rafters of a room housing many other works in Heiberg’s collection. Permanently hung and out of public view, this major painting remained largely unknown during subsequent decades when such landmark works as The Scream (1893) and Madonna (1894-5) were earning Munch wide renown. When Heiberg’s house was sold in 1938 after his death, the painting remained with his family who removed it from its original location and brought it to the National Gallery in Oslo, where the tapering end sections of the wide trapezoidal canvas were repositioned and reworked to create the painting’s present rectangular shape. The painting was owned by the descendents of Heiberg until 1979 when it was sold and has remained in private hands until it became a gift to the Museum.

New Munch Acquisition

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 26th Street | Philadelphia, PA 19130
Main Museum Number: (215) 763-8100 | TTY: (215) 684-7600

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