By the end of the 1880's Munch's originality and importance as a painter were recognized by a small but important group which included his immediate contemporaries and older members of literary and artistic circles. He had exhibited since 1883 with the progressive group of Norwegian painters in their autumn exhibitions. Yet conservative critics and most of the press were unfavorable. In a material sense he had achieved very little success; the years toward the end of the eighties were difficult.
In 1889, with the backing of two older painters, Frits Thaulow and Erik Werenskiøld, Munch applied for a Government stipend to permit him to study in Paris. In support of his application an exhibition of his work up to that year was held which is said to have been the first 'one-man show' given a Norwegian artist. Munch won the grant, and, according to the established practice, it was renewed twice.
From the autumn of 1889 to the summer of 1892, except for the intervening summers which he spent in Norway, Munch was abroad. He had been in Paris for a few weeks in 1885, but it was during this much longer period, under the full impact of the radical concepts of French painters, that decisive changes took place in his painting.
Although he was by no means unaware of Impressionism, then the major progressive tendency in Paris, in October of 1889 Munch entered the studio of the academic painter Léon Bonnat, whose prestige was at its height. He remained there as a student for three months. From his letters to his family we learn that Bonnat liked his drawing very much and that Munch expected to profit by what he was doing. However, it was impossible that the correct, academic realism of Bonnat could have given anything to Munch. Toward the end of his time with Bonnat, his father died very suddenly. Unable to reach home in time for the funeral, the son remained in Paris. By early January he had left Bonnat and moved from the city to St. Cloud where he was working independently.
The following year Munch became ill as soon as he arrived in France and he spent some weeks in a hospital at Le Havre. That winter he went to Nice for his health and returned to the Riviera again the next year. There was also a brief trip to Italy and one to Germany. What Munch went through as a painter during these years was not simple. He followed diverse tendencies, some of which seem contradictory and were not, during this period at least, reconciled. Some led directly to the full artistic maturity of the nineties, others disappeared after a year or two to return later completely transformed. Thus this was a crucial period for Munch, supplying him with additional foundations for his painting that were to last until the end of his life. In this sense he can be compared with his French contemporaries, Bonnard and Vuillard, who also built on their experiences of the early nineties and, like Munch, absorbed only those innovations of the twentieth century which could be reconciled with the old bases of their art.
In the written sources so far published there is almost no information about the way Munch came to know the work of his contemporaries in Paris. The letters to his family show that his companions were Scandinavians. They contain references to visits to exhibitions, but no specific mention of paintings. Jens Thiis, who as an old friend was in a position to know, states that Munch knew the work of Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin at Théo van Gogh's gallery
Soon after he had left the studio of Bonnat, when he was in St. Cloud, he made an entry in his notebook which laid down what was to become the program for much of his later work. He wrote, 'No longer should you paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. There must be living beings who breathe and feel and love and suffer. I would paint such pictures in a cycle. People would understand the sacredness of them and take off their hats as if they were in church.' The first sentence was a declaration of independence from the conventions of realistic genre painting, from which he had actually turned some years before.
The idea of pictures in a cycle dealing with the living, loving and suffering of human beings expressed in such a way that the paintings strike awe in the beholder was the new challenge the painter presented himself, the culmination, no doubt, of feelings he had had from the period of creation of the first versions of The Sick Child and Puberty. The idea became Munch's Frieze of Life, whose scope in subject matter was not established until the end of the nineties, and whose limits were never clearly and finally defined. During this first Paris period only the first of the motives for the frieze were found. Until the end of his life Munch worked and reworked the motives of his cycle, always in the hope that he could find the opportunity to create it in one grand decorative scheme.
The thought expressed in the St. Cloud note-book represents only one pole of Munch's effort in these years. The opposite extreme was the product of his contact with the still-dominant current of progressive French painting, Impressionism. Munch devoted considerable time to paintings in this manner during 1890 and 1891, and with his facility with paint and his quick and impressionable mind he rapidly attained a grasp of the method of color and subtly balanced arrangement of pictorial elements. Adopting the Impressionist method completely meant taking a detached view of the relations and character of color and form in light. His impressionist paintings as a group are like a calm and untroubled island among his other works. It was in this manner that Munch won his first popular success. In 1891 the National Gallery of Norway made its first purchase from him, of an impressionistic view of Nice.
Edvard Munch, Impressionism, Edvard Munch Biography, Munch Paintings, Munch Drawings, The Scream, Ash 1894, Bathing Man, Mermaid on the Shore, The Murderer, Separation, The Dance of Life, Madeban Auf Dem Pier, Jealousy, Young Girl on a Jetty, The Girls on the Pier, Four Girls on a Bridge, The Kiss, Girl with Red Hair, Lady From the Sea, Madonna 1895, Portrait of Madame Cézanne, Summer Night at the Beach, Girl on a Bridge, Summer Night at Asgarstrand, Vampire, White and Red, Madonna 1894, Bathing Man, The Sun, Moonlight