Collections and research

Edvard Munch in the National Museum

The Dance of Life, 1899–1900

Oil on canvas, 125 x 191 cm
NG.M.00941

© Nasjonalmuseet / Munch-museet / Munch-Ellingsen-gruppen / BONO 2010.
Foto: Jacques Lathion / Nasjonalmuseet

Munch’s painting shows several couples dancing in a luminous summer night. The central element of the composition is a couple, of whom the woman is wearing a bright red dress that wraps itself around the feet of her dancing partner. Her loose hair swirling about him, they seem to become a single entity. This couple is flanked by two other women, one of them young and radiant in a white dress, the other pale, with sunken cheeks and dressed in black. It is as if a story were being told about various stages in a woman’s life. Munch has set the scene on the seashore, a landscape with elements from Åsgårdstrand. Many of the pictures in Munch’s protracted “Frieze of Life” project were inspired by Åsgårdstrand’s curving shoreline and characteristic landscape.

In 1898 Munch received a copy of Helge Rode’s new theatre play Dansen gaar (The Dance Goes On). Rode’s play may well have inspired Munch’s motif. In the play, the artist Aage Vollmer says:

The dance of life. My picture shall be called The Dance of Life! There will be a couple dancing in flowing garments […] He is holding her tight. He is profoundly serious and happy. […] He will hold her so close, so tight, that she almost merges with him. […] He infuses her with strength.

Munch kept Helge Rode’s play in his library, although it was not his only inspiration for this picture. The motif probably also reflects personal experience. The Dance of Life was a key work in “The Frieze of Life”.

The painting was bought by Olaf Schou at the Munch exhibition at the Diorama hall in Kristiania in 1910 and immediately presented to the National Gallery.

EL