The Scream by Edvard Munch: Inside His Panicked Head

The Scream is the most controversial and famous artwork depicting Edvard Munch stricken by Anxiety. The painting showcases Edvard in the center of the composition and grabs your attention in a split second.

The Scream

In the late nineteenth century, somewhere between 1888 and 1890, the art world drastically changed as it was a decided retreat from naturalism and impressionism manifested in European art. And every artist had their own opinions about this era. For instance, during this period, Gauguin opposed the analytical conception of the Impressionists as he wanted to give simplification, concentration and submission to a unified idea in the artistry. Similarly, in 1890, Ferdinand Hodler painted The Night, where he drifted his art style from conventional realism to symbolism. And by doing so, he attracted major critics, people as the picture content of symbolism gained importance through differently expressed by different individuals. Because these symbolist paintings are not meant to convey what the artist saw, but rather communicate a deeper meaning, they hold this value to become metaphors, parables, and symbols. Falling under this same category, Edvard Munch, near the 1880s and 90s, painted an essentially symbolistic artwork, The Scream. Edvard escaped the inherent danger of abstract mysticism because his life was troubling, and he had serious problems with the world around him. Hence, the symbolism worked wonders with his art, connecting Millions of minds through his single artwork.

Today we are here to learn about the The Scream by Edvard Munch, which is essentially a masterwork in the artistic world.

General Information About the Artwork.

1. Artist’s Statement.

“I inherited two of mankind’s most deadly enemies- the heritage of consumption and insanity… Sickness, madness and death were the black angels who stood around my cradles at birth.”

2. Subject Matter.

The subject matter of the painting consists of an anxious body in insane colours screaming loudly in the background of bloody reds and cursing yellows. The central attraction of the composition remains a disturbing skull-like head of Munch’s homunculus with the position of its hands over the face. Two strange people appear in the background as dark shadows, symbolizing social anxiety. In the foreground, the flowing forms of the landscape are a wave-like structure, adding a harmful drama to the composition.

The Scream art by Edvard Munch in National Gallery Oslo

3. Artist.

Edvard Munch painted The Scream painting as a heartfelt rendering of his traumatic and personal life experiences. Growing up in an ill-healthy middle-class family, Munch achieved great things in his career. However, as a child, Munch lost his mother to tuberculosis and death of his eldest sister to tuberculosis when he was 14; his first masterpiece, The Sick Child (1885–86), captured the latter event. He was to recover from the pain of losing his mother and sister, but on the same journey, he lost his father and brother. Further, in a short period, his other sister got affected by a mental illness. He describes his life in three words,

“Illness, insanity and death.”

4. Date.

As Edvard worked on the Despair motif during 1892, it gradually evolved into The Scream. The pastel-on cardboard study of the Scream painting is dated 1893.

5. Provenance.

A little history about the painting is that it belonged to the painting sequence, The Frieze of Life, on which Edvard worked during the 1890s. It belonged to the most famous artwork of Edvard Munch which is far more crude and expressionist in style. Munch’s diary note from 22 January 1892 says,

“I was walking along the road with two friends – then the Sun set – all at once the sky became blood red – and I felt overcome with melancholy. I stood still and leaned against the railing, dead tired – clouds like blood and tongues of fire hung above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends went on, and I stood alone, trembling with anxiety. I felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature.” 

6. Location.

The painting resides in The National Museum of Oslo.

7. Technique and Medium.

The painting has a medium of oil on canvas. With the use of swirling lines, undulating forms and spatial compression, Edvard painted an intense feeling of anguish and fear. The artist demonstrated to a group how he experienced fear, a personal experience becoming a collective experience.

ArtistEdvard Munch
Year Painted1893, 1895 and 1910
Medium and VersionsTempera on cardboard, Crayon on cardboard, Pastel on cardboard, and Lithograph
SeriesEdvard Munch’s Frieze of Life
MovementPost-expressionism and Symbolism
Dimensions91 cm x 73.5 cm
WorthThe Scream pastel on cardboard sold for $119.9 Million in 2012
Where is it housed?The 1893 version resides at the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway, and The 1910 version resides at The Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway.

The Scream | Fast Knowledge

The Scream is a Post-Expressionist artwork by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, first painted in 1893. The autobiographical painting is one of the most acclaimed images of the West, mainly because of the insight of the terror of his traumatic mind. The use of particular colors and swirls with a face screaming in the center of the composition connects with the viewer.

Now, that you know a brief information about the painting, let us move to the next part to study it in detail.

Detailed Description of The Scream.

About the Artist: Edvard Munch.

Born on 12 December 1863 at Engelhaugen Farm in Loten, Hedmark Country, Norway, Edvard was the son of Army Medical Corps doctor Christian Munch and his wife, Laura Cathrine Bjolstad. When he was seventeen years old, he decided to be an artist, so from that period of time until 1944, he worked effortlessly and ceaselessly, letting him produce an enormous body of paintings, drawings, watercolours and graphics from small, intimate paintings and etchings to monumental wall decorations. Coming to the early training of the Munch, he briefly studied under the sculptor Julius Middelthun at the School of Design in Oslo. And in the later years, Middelthun’s classical style influences the form of Edvard’s compositions. When Edvard lived in Oslo, he had a company of a lively and argumentative group of French-inspired painters, which shaped his sensibility towards the social conflicts dominating the era. In 1882, the naturalist painter Christian Krohg influenced him, and as he studied at Frits Thaulow’s open-air academy in 1883, a bolder naturalism emerged in his artworks. The earliest works of Edvard had characteristics like intimate subjects, delicate forms and charming colours.

Portrait of famous Norwegian painter Edvard Munch

Looking at the motifs in his artworks, they are drawn from the family and its milieu, the town where he lived and spent his early days. Hence in the early 1880s, there is an elevated sense of colour in the compositions of Edvard. In 1885, he visited Paris, where he was overwhelmed by the modern paintings, and Manet and particularly impressionists appealed strongly to him.

However, even with all these, Edvard could not confine himself to the limits of naturalism or impressionism. He needed to have a rich, free and individual form of language that could not only broadcast his style but also could express the ideas his mind occupied- memories of illness in his family, his sister’s death, and his friends’ preoccupation with sex which at once attracted and repelled him. And so the first masterpiece by Munch, after a vivid experimentation of techniques, was The Sick Child, where he expressed the painful memories of his childhood experiences and showed love for his family.

Edvard Munch's The Sick Child

Now, you know quite a while about the artist; let me take you under what circumstances Edvard painted the painting, The Scream.

History and Background of the Expressionist Artwork.

Before we learn the provenance of the composition, let me first briefly tell you a few facts. The Scream painting has four editions. It comes from the Symbolistic movement, which in addition was inspired by the Expressionist movement. And for those who did not know about the terminology, let me tell you that Symbolism was a late 19th-century French art movement, which represents absolute truth symbolically against naturalism and realism. And I have already told you about its relevance with the artist in the introduction briefly.

In 1893, he drew the first version, a crayon-coloured artwork. It is currently at the Munch Museum, and the other edition in tempera belongs to The National Gallery. Very few critics believe that the pastel colour version could be the preparatory sketch for the final artwork. The artwork has a rough coloured lining of blue, yellow and red. In the artwork, there was a hard-to-see inscription writing, 

“Kan Kun være malet af en gal Mand!”

that sounds like “could only have been painted by a madman”. Due to this part of the painting, it was the discussion of whether the handwriting belonged to him. It was Edvard who wrote these words. 

Moving to the history of the first version of the Scream, we realised that Edvard was on his return to Paris in 1891, where he attended a memorial exhibition of work by Vincent van Gogh, whose emotional use of colour, expressive brushstrokes, handling of paint confirmed the kind of artworks Edvard was looking for. One might find relevance in The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, which broadcasted the turbulent brushstrokes, and The Bridge at Trinquetaille of 1888 and Road with Cypress and Star of 1890, which showcases a dark depiction of figures along the steep and dramatic diagonal, which may have acted as a spur to Edvard when he worked upon the Scream. From the period of the 1890s, we understand that there was typically a dark and strenuous emotion which dominated the artworks by Edvard. And we saw this in The Sick Child and Puberty, which revealed the significant moments in human life. And he continued this echo of paintings in his momentous title series of artworks, The Frieze of Life. And as The Scream was part of this sequence, it becomes crucial for us to realise that it was not just viewed by its maker. In a letter of March 1893 to Johan Rohde, he says,

“I am working on a series of paintings at the moment… I believe my paintings will be more easily understood once I put them all together. The series will deal with love and death.”

While he painted The Scream, he lived in a hotel room in Berlin. 

There is one more crucial thing which you should not miss while you learn about the painting. The precursor of The Scream is a painting, originally, exhibited as Mood at Sunset or Deranged Mood at Sunset, now known as Despair. The railings and two unusual figures in the foreground are similar in both paintings. However, Munch, though continued working on the Despair motif during 1892, and it gradually took the shape of The Scream. The first version consists of a charcoal drawing with a reduced size in the foreground figures and a small pen and ink sketch of the frontal view of the main protagonist. In 1893, The Scream had a definitive form painted in pastel on cardboard.

Now, this finally concludes the section. But we need to discuss the sequence under which The Scream comes in the next part.

The Frieze of Life Sequence.

As first displayed at the Berlin Secession in 1902 and in Leipzig a year later, the sequence got completed in 1900. All the paintings falling under the Frieze of Life sequence hang on a separate wall as Edvard divided them into four thematic groupings. He titled them ‘Love’s Awakening’, ‘Love Blossoms and Dies,’ ‘Fear of Life’ and ‘Death.’

Now, the first grouping included The Voice and Moonlight. Then the second consisted of Love and Pain, also known as Vampire and Madonna. Further, the third one included Evening on Karl Johan Street and The Scream, and the final one had The Death Bed and The Dead Mother and the Child.

The Voice by Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch Moonlight
Love and Pain or Vampire and Madonna by Edvard Munch
Evening on Karl Johan Street Edvard Munch
The Deathbed by Edvard Munch
The Dead Mother Edvard Munch

The Frieze of Life consisted of some of the most extraordinary and disturbing works of the artist’s career. 

Understanding The Scream Painting Meaning.

In 1891 Munch suffered a cataclysmic experience, which ultimately gave birth to The Scream. I have already pointed you the words from Edvard’s diary explaining the incident. Now, let me tell you more about it.

The painting represents a scene of tension and outley of horror, which is seized with a terrible fear and outcry of separation. It is the experience of Munch where he was unable to put up any defence. And somewhere, it resembles the emotional state of Van Gogh when he passionately brought life to the exciting landscapes of the countryside.

Wheatfield With Crows Painting by Vincent Van Gogh

The sexless curving contours of the figures combinedly with the swirling landscapes behind and around it showcases the dramatic tension of the artist. Though the Scream has an intensely subjective mood and takes expressionistic liberties with appearance, the lurid sky Munch describes in words and depicts in the painting may well be based on a strange natural phenomenon that only occurs in northern Europe, known as lenticular cloud formation. Now, the reason behind the painting may be his sister, Laura, who suffered from melancholia and entered the asylum in 1892. In addition, his close friend Kalle Lochen also committed suicide near the spot of the landscape of the painting. When we look closer, Munch’s fear of strangers, women, death, illness, and empty spaces made him certain to form such works. Additionally, the colours of the canvas also reflected his insomnia, chest pains, and extreme mood swings.

Now, if you are wondering what is the place behind the painting, then I am covering that part in this section. Because the composition contained enough clues, we know exactly where the traumatic experience occurred. There must have been a road in Edvard’s day running between the capital and Nordstrand on the eastern shore of the fjord. As the composition’s top right-hand corner depicts the view of the city from the stretch of road on top of Ekeberg Hill, which was popular with landscape painters in the nineteenth century for its picturesque views, the representation of the fjord and hills of Kristiania and the Royal Palace, although summarized.

Subject Matter Analysis of The Scream by Edvard Munch.

The artwork shows a delusional and fictional red-orange sky. It was the subject of discussion for every art critic and scholar. We know there is no volcanic eruption to prove the reddish sky, and so do the scholars. The popular examination said that maybe Munch referred to the autumn sky, which was absolutely wrong here. Later, it ended with the factual statement that during his composition, he lived in Kristiania, now Oslo, the capital of Norway. During that respective period, the volcano on Krakatoa Island in Indonesia erupted, which turned the sky blood red. It was the dominant force behind this classic colouring of the sky. And not to forget lenticular cloud formation, which I told you earlier. You could see the swirling sky like waves of different colours. Maybe this swirling withstands his position of mind, which begins restlessness and anxiety. The delusion comes in a spiral way and circulates you into a vicious cycle of dilemma and obnoxious feelings. The reason behind these curved lines, and not the straight ones in the sky, coincides with this thought.

The Scream Analysis of the Subject

Next, we see two long figures in dark clothes on a bridge with straight lines. They have worn black coats and hats and are suspicious-looking creatures. Now it has one distilled meaning of separation from his friends. The Scream painting is autobiographical, so there is no doubt that the figures represent his friends.

The Scream Background showing Two Figures

This expressionist art composition consists of swirling water with two boats on the right. If you look closely, there is an embankment and a water source in the middle of it. In addition, the brush strokes moving from lighter shades of blue to darker ones is also noteworthy here.

The Scream Subject Elements showing water waves and boats

Finally, there is a face with a scream. While alone and separated from his friends, there were voices engraved in his head. We can see that the bustling thoughts of fear and tremendous torture in his brain made him scream from inside. There is a clear reflection of mental abnormality, which in the extreme can destroy the human extremes. At the start, the central figure compares itself to the Peruvian Mummy by Art Historian Robert Rosenblum. The figure shows itself as a disturbing and morbid experience which have agony and misery embedded in it.

The Scream Painting face

One of the critics, Franz Servaes, described the painting as,

“…a madhouse, and in insane colours screaming together loudly in bloody reds and cursing yellows, the sky appears in whirling stripes like a shaken striped rug. The earth shivers, lamp posts move, and people become insignificant shadows. It is I alone that exists in my endless terror. Shrivelled into a repulsive worm-like form is the remnant of my body. My staring eyes and screaming mouth are all that I feel. Staring and screaming, screaming and staring, and feeling my stomach twisting- this is the only experience remaining in the madness of despaired love.”

Now that you know the painting, let us move to the formal analysis section of the artwork.

Formally Analysing The Scream by Edward Munch.

1. Line.

Edvard used swirling lines in the composition to create a sense of movement and his dilemma over his mind, which Vincent did in The Starry Night. Further, the flattening effect of the curving landscape lines, raked diagonal lines over the road for a spatial recession on the road creates an alarming instability and thrust in the viewer’s own space. You must understand that the swirling lines are for surrounding nature and distorted figures. And finally, the two long figures in the foreground are straight, showcasing the stability, which Edvard left. And finally, there is a skull-like head with curvacious lines, with the positions of the hands over the face.

The Scream Analysis

2. Light and Value.

The painting has darker hues and shades, representing shallowness and horrors of instability. 

Black and White version of The Scream Painting

3. Colour.

Munch displayed the artwork in a much more dramatic form through the usage of different colours. Reds and oranges dominate the sunset in the background, while dull blues, greens, purples and greys dominate everything else.

If you look closely, The Scream’s face also has a contrasting appearance concerning the bloody red colour of the sky. Munch uses hues to dull yellows, blues, and purples to paint the figure. It is clear that both are dramatic twists, and these extremes complement each other in a higher intensity of colours.

Even closer, you see The Scream background, it looks simple, but the composition consists of clever contrasts of colours: red and green, and orange and blue. It not only illuminates the viewer’s mind to introspect the empty spaces in his life but adds a subtle level of complexity. For instance, red is the darkest colour with a weak green over the land.

Munch relied on the lines, swirling brushstrokes, and colour contrasts to show his tormented mental condition in this painting.

Additional Information About the Painting.


1994 Thefts.

In 1994, two men stole the 1893 tempera version of the Scream painting from the National Gallery in Oslo. They left a note saying,

“Thanks for the poor security.”

With the Norwegian police sting operation with the Getty Museum and British Police, the paintings were finally recovered on 7 May 1994.

2004 Thefts.

A gunman broke into the Munch Museum on 22 August 2004 and stole the 1910 version of the Scream painting. A visitor took a photograph of their car with the artwork. In 2005, Norwegian police arrested a suspect, but the composition remained missing, which led people to think that they might have destroyed the painting. On 31 August 2006, Norwegian police recovered it with minimal damage.

Total Versions of The Scream Painting.

There is a total of four versions of the Scream painting in addition to the original. They are as follows-

1. The tempera on cardboard version 1893: The Oslo National Gallery. It got stolen in the year 1994.

The Scream Tempera version of 1893

2. Crayon on cardboard: The Munch Museum Version from 1893. Its colours are not vibrant, and the whole painting appears to be dull comparatively. 

Edvard Munch The Scream Crayon Version

3. Pastel on cardboard: Private Collection version from 1895. On one fine day in 2014, this second pastel version sold for the remarkable amount of $119 Million to financier Leon Black through Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art auction.

The Scream painting, 1895, Pastel on paper on cardboard

4. The Munch Museum Replica from 1910: This version was distinguishable since the screaming face had no eyeballs, which made it more vulnerable. In 2004 it was stolen from the Munch Museum and recovered with minimum damage. 

5. The Lithograph print: It had 45 prints.

The Scream Lithograph

Popular Culture Of The Scream.

The central figure became so famous in the late 90s that a movie franchise, Scream (1996), which spans four films, derived its mask from it.

The mask from movie Scream based on painting The Scream by Edvard Munch

Furthermore, it dominated the book cover of The Primal Scream by Arthur Janov. The expression of Kevin McCallister in the movie Home Alone was also inspired by the same. The principal alien antagonists depicted in the 2011 BBC series Doctor Who had an appearance from the central figure of the artwork.

The silence from Doctor Who based on Scream art

Opinions and Conclusions.

The Scream by Edvard Munch is an absolute masterpiece because of its connectivity, expressiveness, contrasting colours, vivid brushstrokes and intimate touch. Whether or not we look in a way what the artist felt, we all have sudden events in our lives which let us bridge towards this painting. I hope you enjoyed the read!


1. The masterworks of Edvard Munch Introd. by John Elderfield, commentaries by Arne Eggum.

2. The Private Life of a Masterpiece by Monica Dohn-Duchen.

3. The Graphic art of Edward Munch by Timm, Werner.

4. Edvard Munch: 1863-1944 by Ulrich Bischoff.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who painted the Scream?

Norwegian painter Edvard Munch painted The Scream when he experienced anxiety at an instance in his life. It is a post-expressionist art which closely relates to the human condition.

How long did the Scream painting take?

It took Edvard Munch 18 months to paint the creative composition of The Scream.

How much is the Scream worth?

The Scream auctioned for $119.9 million in 2012, making it one of the most expensive artworks of that time.

Why is the Scream so famous?

The Scream became famous as the artwork showcased human anxiety and the tormented mental state of the artist. Additionally, the artwork was subjected to several thefts, making it even more popular.

How old is the Scream painting?

Edvard Munch completed the first version of The Scream art in 1893. Since then, the artwork has become one of the masterpieces of history.

Who stole the Scream?

The robbery was carried out by a gang led by Pål Enger, following which he was sentenced to six years and three months in prison. Police recovered The Scream in a beach resort of Åsgårdstrand, and four men were arrested for the same.

Where is the Scream currently located?

The Scream is currently part of Edvard Munch’s collection in The National Museum, Oslo.

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