Symbolism

The Amazing Midnight Sun in Paintings: Edvard Munch’s Summer Nights

Magda Michalska 21 June 2021 min Read

Edvard Munch was fascinated by the Norwegian summer light which evokes both tranquillity and anxiety, two feelings that Munch tried to capture in his work. Moving almost every summer to a nearby coastal town, he often worked between 9 and 11 pm in order to precisely capture the unique atmosphere of the summer nights.

Edvard Munch's Summer Nights: Edvard Munch, The Mystery of a Summer night, 1892, private collection.
Edvard Munch, The Mystery of a Summer night, 1892, private collection.

In his journals, Munch wrote that seaside rocks reminded him of goblins and sea spirits: “In the night’s light which forms have fantastic tones”. Sadly, the home critics didn’t understand Munch’s poetic approach to painting and read his works way too literally. As a result, the reception of his 1890s works was hostile and cruel, some calling his paintings “gibberish”. They criticized the “easily thrown stones that seem to be made only from soft, shapeless substance”.

Edvard Munch's Summer Nights: Edvard Munch, Summer Night/ The Voice, 1896, Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway.
Edvard Munch, Summer Night/ The Voice, 1896, Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway.

The woman depicted in the Summer Night/The Voice (painted from memory, by the way, as a memoir of the first night spent together) was Munch’s first love, Millie Thaulow, whom he met a year before. She was older and married to a military captain. Curiously, however, Munch painted the first version of this work back in 1893. Maybe it is better to interpret the female figure more as a symbol of the Voice, especially since the later work is part of the famous Frieze of Life.

Edvard Munch, Summer Night (Inger on the shore), 1889, Rasmus Meyer Collection, Bergen, Norway.
Edvard Munch, Summer Night (Inger on the shore), 1889, Rasmus Meyer Collection, Bergen, Norway.

Inger was Munch’s younger sister and she often modelled for his paintings. In the year of production of this portrait, Munch rented a small house in Åsgårdstrand, which was a tiny village situated on the edge of a fjordplace near Oslo, which he had regurarly visited since 1888. It served as a summer resort for many Oslo intellectuals and artists.

Edvard Munch's Summer Nights: Edvard Munch, Summer Night in Aagaardstrand, 1904, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France.
Edvard Munch, Summer Night in Aagaardstrand, 1904, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

Although at home Munch continued to be rather controversial, France and Germany warmly welcomed his work. Between 1902 and 1904, Munch exhibited at the Parisian Salon des Indépendants. This painting is one of the presented ones of 1904. It shows a view which was a recurring motif in Munch’s landscapes, as we can find it e.g. in Girls on a Bridge, 1899-1901, Moscow, Pushkin Museum, and Women on the Bridge, 1902, Bergen, Billedgalleri.

Edvard Munch's Summer Nights: Edvard Munch, High Summer II, 1915, Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway.
Edvard Munch, High Summer II, 1915, Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway.

The summer of 1915 was different from others: Munch didn’t spend it in his usual village but he worked in Hvitsten on the decorations of the University Aula. In August and September he travelled to Trondheim, Jeløya and Copenhagen. Moreover, in 1915 he sent financial support to young German artists.