It’s been a big quarter for uncovering new information about some of painting’s heavy hitters, thanks in part to new technologies that let researchers examine the underlying layers of famous paintings. This week, the National Museum of Norway announced the discovery of underdrawings hidden beneath the surface of their Edvard Munch painting, “Madonna,” which suggests that it may be one of the earliest versions of the subject painted by the artist.
Conservator Thierry Ford worked with photographer Børre Høstland using infrared reflectography in preparation for it to go on display in the National Museum’s new building. The technique allows conservators to see underlayers beneath the surface of paintings. This work revealed the painting’s subject in a different pose, one that was altered for the final composition — as well as a series of five small Madonna paintings in an undated series between 1894 and 1897. Previously, there was no way of knowing which canvas was the original Madonna, and the National Museum’s version was speculatively thought to be from 1894 or 1895. But with the discovery of the compositional play beneath the surface, it is likely that this is canvas used by the artist to arrange the pose that he later used in all the Madonna paintings.
“The new findings, together with earlier research, makes it reasonable to determine that Edvard Munch finished this first version of Madonna in 1894,” says Vibeke Waallann Hansen, curator at the National Museum of Norway. “It also gives us interesting information about how the artist worked on the composition. We can see that he experimented with letting both arms hang down. Along with other early sketches for similar motifs, the underdrawings in the painting tells us that he was hesitant about how to place the arms of his Madonna.”
Though the sketch demonstrates that Munch played with the idea of conveying the Madonna with her arms at her sides, ultimately, he chose to portray her in a more sensual attitude, with arms bent behind her arching back, displaying her chest. She is afforded a halo, but it is a provocative red, rather than saintly gold. The painting was alternatively titled “Elskende kvinde” (“Woman Making Love”), and this seems more aesthetically aligned with the content of the painting than traditional renderings of the mother of Jesus. Still, it ultimately stands as a beautiful tribute to the divine feminine, wherever we may find it.
Visitors can look forward to grappling with these thematic contradictions at next year’s opening of Munch Room in the National Museum’s new building, in June of 2022. Until then, we would all do well to remember that no matter what a figure looks like on the surface, there is usually at least one more version that lies within.