Both Smithsonian and My Modern Met report on the resolution that has baffled art historians for over a century. Back in the late 19th century, famous Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch painted several versions of his masterpiece The Scream. The one which is the original dates from 1893. But in 1904, when a Danish art critic looked closely at the painting, he noticed graffiti along with the rolling clouds of the blood-red sunset. The sentence reads, “Can only have been painted by a madman.” The mysterious statement—clearly added sometime after the painting’s debut in 1893—was long thought to be added either by a disgruntled onlooker or perhaps the artist himself.
The debate among art critics and art historians about the inscription went on until recently when it was resolved by modern technology. Experts at the National Museum of Norway used infrared technology to compare the inscription with Munch’s letters and journals. After their research, they determined the inscription belongs to Munch himself.
But why would Munch etch this sentence into his own painting, asks My Modern Met? It is known that Munch took criticism of his mental state very much to heart, as he had a family history of mental illness. According to a statement from the museum: “It is likely that Munch added the inscription in 1895, or shortly after in response to the judgment on his work.”
Munch once wrote, “Illness, insanity, and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.” His most famous painting, The Scream, has inspired countless depictions of pain—including the famous Scream mask.