Best known for his widely-reproduced painting The Scream, no one immortalized the anxiety of modern life better than the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Munch’s works belong to Symbolism, an art movement that emphasized the depiction of the tangible world through the lens of subjectivity and emotions. Strongly believing that humans were powerless in the face of love and death, the artist frequently portrayed the most turbulent emotions in his paintings, which included anxiety, fear, loneliness, despair, jealousy and desire.
Painted in a Symbolist style, with lines, colors and figural distortion to reveal the seascape through the prism of sadness and jealousy, Melancholy is part of a series of similar paintings and woodcuts that Munch completed in the 1890s. The artwork shows a man brooding in the foreground, succumbed to sadness, with his body turned away from the scene that is causing him pain: a man and a woman who are standing on a jetty, in the background, about to embark on a boat. The couple may physically be there, on the pier, but the expressiveness of the painting seems to make no distinction between imagination and reality. Whether the man is simply imagining the two lovers going away or he is acutely aware that they’re nearby, is of no consequence. The pain he is feeling is just as real.
Munch’s inspiration seems to have come from a scene he noticed on a cloudy night, as he noted:
I was walking along the shore – the moon was shining through dark clouds. The stones loomed out of the water, like mysterious inhabitants of the sea. There were large, broad heads that grinned and laughed. Some of them up on the beach, others down in the water. The dark, bluish-violet sea rose and fell – sighs in among the stones … but there is life over there on the jetty. It was a man and a woman – then came another man – with oars across his shoulder. And the boat lay down there – ready to go.
The melancholic man was a friend of Munch’s, the journalist Jappe Nilssen. At the time, Nilssen was involved in a relationship with a married woman, Oda Krohg, and he was suffering from the ramifications of being caught in a love triangle, being overwhelmed with sadness, jealousy and hopelessness.