Barely visible in the upper left corner of one of the world’s most famous paintings are the words: “It could only have been painted by a madman!” For years, curators and art historians have wondered who wrote it.
After decades of debate, experts confirmed this week that the artist himself, Edvard Munch, is responsible for the inscription of his most famous work, “The Scream.”
According to the National Museum of Norway, a Danish art critic first noticed the inscription during an exhibition in Copenhagen in 1904, thinking that a member of the public had written it as an act of vandalism.
New infrared scans, which do not affect the painting, have shown that Munch left the small sentence in the corner of the painting, written in pencil after the work was already complete. The museum analyzed the handwriting and compared it to Munch’s diaries and letters of the time.
“The writing is definitely Munch’s,” said Mai Britt Guleng, curator of the National Museum. “The writing itself, as well as the events that occurred in 1895, when Munch first showed the painting in Norway, point in the same direction.”
The museum confirmed the origins of the inscription while the painting is undergoing extensive conservation in preparation for installation in Oslo, Munch’s hometown, next year.
“The writing has always been visible to the naked eye, but it has been very difficult to interpret,” said Thierry Ford, curator of paintings at the National Museum. “Through a microscope, you can see that the pencil lines are physically on top of the paint and have been applied after the paint is finished.”
After “The Scream” debuted in 1895, Munch received strong criticism, including from the art community, and a medical student, Johan Scharffenberg, who questioned his mental state during a debate in which Munch was present.
Henrik Grosch, then director of the Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, wrote that Munch’s paintings showed that Munch can no longer be “regarded as a serious man with a normal brain.”
For years, Munch referred to the comments in his notes, clearly deeply hurt by the trials.
“The theory is that Munch wrote this after hearing Scharffenberg’s judgment on his mental health, sometime in 1895 or later,” Guleng said of the inscription. “It is reasonable to assume that he did so shortly after, either during or after the exposure.”
Expressionist painting is now widely celebrated in modern times, considered an enduring representation of anxiety and distress. In his journal, Munch wrote that the painting was inspired by “a flurry of melancholy.”
Both Munch’s father and grandfather suffered from depression and his sister was admitted to Gaustad Psychiatric Hospital. Munch was hospitalized after a nervous breakdown in 1908.
“The inscription can be read as an ironic comment, but at the same time as an expression of the artist’s vulnerability,” Guleng said. “Writing on the finished painting shows that creating for Munch was an ongoing process.”
The painting, which is one of four, has rarely been seen since it was briefly stolen nearly 20 years ago. In 2021, a pastel versionduring a Sotheby’s auction in New York, a world record at the time.