More about Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu


In his Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu Edvard Munch documented an illness that caused millions of deaths in the 20th century.

The Spanish flu caused a devastating pandemic from 1918 to 1919 that resulted in the death of over 25 million people. Some researchers even believe that it caused as many as 40 to 50 million deaths. Symptoms included fever, pneumonia, and nausea. Edvard Munch contracted the disease at the end of 1918 and made his Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu in 1919 when he was 56 years old. He probably did not expect to survive this deadly influenza virus, but luckily he did. While other artists who suffered from the disease died from it, such as Egon Schiele and Guillaume Apollinaire, Munch continued to live for another 25 years.

Even though Edvard Munch was no stranger to illness and death, he seems to have treated the Spanish flu as just another period in his life once the illness had passed. The very edgy and poetic artist once famously said: “Illness, insanity, and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.” By painting this while he was ill, he documented it like any other experience. According to Anglo-Norwegian writer Sue Prideaux, contrary to Munch’s other works depicting the topic of sickness, this painting doesn’t contain “family ghosts” or “hallucinations on the wall”. It simply shows the artist sitting in a chair: kind of sickly looking, but rather unfazed by his circumstances. Prideaux even compared Munch’s demeanor whilst sitting in the chair in his dressing gown with the depiction of a king in a royal robe sitting on a throne painted by Diego Velázquez.

Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu wasn’t the last painting the artist did on the topic. The subject of his painting Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu is pretty self-explanatory. Munch looks healthier in this subsequent work, but the impact of the illness is still visible in the dark circles under his eyes.