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Munch in Paris

Today’s post comes from Erin Gallagher, class of 2013 and Art Center Student Docent.

Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863–1944), The Seine at St. Cloud, 1890. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mrs. Morris Hadley (Katherine Blodgett, class of 1920), 1962.1

Permeated by the dusky blue palette of nighttime Paris and an overriding sense of lonely isolation, the subtle scene of The Seine at St. Cloud evokes a melancholic sentiment from the back wall of the nineteenth century gallery in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. The painting marks a departure for the artist Edvard Munch as he breaks with his artistic training as a Norwegian Naturalist. In the wake of his father’s death, Munch created The Seine at St. Cloud in 1890 when he was abroad in Paris. The painting evidences certain connections to his condition as a foreigner, responding to the modern metropolis with his own experience of alienation and isolation. In The Seine at St. Cloud, a work largely cast in shadow, Munch depicts the urban environments of both Paris and St. Cloud at night as an amorphous realm where the concreteness of objects and structures is unfixed and made fleeting like a dream.

The composition of the scene, a blurred vision of a city-lit skyline, bridge-straddled river, and shadowy sidewalk, is divided into three levels of pictorial depth. The immediate space in the foreground establishes the violet-streaked street. Rendered at a minor angle that is echoed at the far end of the Seine, the slanted sidewalk sets the space slightly askance. The parallel angle rises from left to right and answers the intersecting line of the bridge as the hazy silhouette of the distant city cuts blearily across the middle ground of the painting and marks the start of the night sky that dominates the upper portion of the canvas.

Throughout the quiet nocturne, the filmy shadows and the large prevailing tree contribute to an eerie anthropomorphic presence; a strong side light creates a prominent dark shade departing from the solid trunk and anchoring its solitary form against the night. A smoky chasm surrounds the contour of the tree, creating a hazy blue aura about its trunk where the railing and emerging boat do not quite kiss the dark bark. The skeletal, human-like quality of the tree branches emphasizes, perhaps, the lonely existence led in its urban surroundings­­––the separate, untouched trunk suggesting Munch’s sentiment of foreign rift.

Present in the bottom right corner, the insubstantial image of a fleeting flâneur, the night prowler of Paris, dissolves, almost imperceptibly, into the streets itself and is revealed only partially beneath the overlay of lavender and light blue brush strokes. An unfixable shadow in the lower left edge, likewise, suggests the ghostly lurking of some form hovering beyond the view of the frame. The ominous penumbra lacks any physical evidence of human or non-human presence, once again bestowing the scene with a transient dream-like air that evokes a world of haunted and amorphous shadows. The Seine at St. Cloud, with its disquieting and unfixed forms fading into the filmy city, marks not only a unique point in Munch’s artistic development, but also captures the feeling of transience and isolation one might experience when slipping as an unknown passerby into the metropolis’s teeming crowds.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Joseph

    I always thought this would be a good painting for incoming Freshman who are homesick to be angsty with.

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