Christie’s is offering Edvard Munch’s Fertility (estimate: $25-35 million) – one of the most important works by the artist remaining in private hands – as the cover lot of its upcoming Evening Sale of Impressionist and Modern Art on May 4. Painted in the late 1890s, Fertility was originally purchased in 1902 by Dr. Max Linde, the German patron responsible for helping Munch establish his career in Germany. Since 1918, the large-format painting has remained in private collections in Scandinavia, with periodic loans to prestigious museum and gallery exhibitions throughout Europe and the United States. The upcoming sale marks the first occasion that the work has ever been offered at public auction.
Conor Jordan, Head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s New York, comments: “Edvard Munch remains one of the most fascinating and influential artists of the Modern era – a pioneer of the Expressionist movement who sought to explore the deeper, universal truths of the human condition through art. Beyond this painting’s pure aesthetic beauty, its rich, layered narrative, beautifully-worked surface, and remarkable state of preservation all combine to make this a highly sought-after prize for collectors, with recordbreaking potential on auction night.”
At nearly 4 feet high by 4½ feet wide, Fertility is the one of the largest works of Munch’s early career.
Rendered in verdant greens with rich orange, red, and yellow accents, the painting’s focal point is a lush fruit tree laden with ripe red cherries. A man and woman dressed in rustic work clothes stand facing each other on either side of the tree, creating a tableau reminiscent of Adam and Eve before the Tree of Life. Though the woman’s visible pregnancy and the scene’s lush greenery seem to communicate a theme of regeneration and hope, a fresh wound – as from a newly-cut bough mars the tree trunk between the two figures and lends the scene an ominous, unsettled element.
Painted in the final years of the 1890s, Fertility – alternatively titled Fruitfulness – dates from a period of Munch’s career characterized by remarkable creative output and difficult personal affairs. In 1898, he commenced a relationship with Tulla Larsen, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy wine merchant from Kristiania, as Olso was then called. Unlike Munch, whose father was a devout military doctor, Tulla was part of the moneyed bourgeois class. Their affair was a tumultuous one, and although plans were made for the pair to wed, the relationship came to a violent end in 1902, when an argument led to a self-inflicted gun-shot wound that took off part of a finger on Munch’s left hand. Scholars suggest the red-haired woman depicted in Fertility, and in an earlier, possibly related work Metabolism, is likely Tulla.
A controversial figure harshly received by critics in his native Norway, Munch is now recognized as one of the most important artists of the Modern era.
Though he had not yet joined the Expressionist movement at the time he painted Fertility, the work represents a pivotal moment in Munch’s journey toward capturing universal truths in his art. Trips to Paris in 1885 and 1889 and exposure to the innovations of post-impressionist artists like Van Gogh and Gauguin had taught him that art no longer had a role in merely imitating life. Instead, he embraced the idea of exploring pure emotion, without shrinking from the opportunity to expose a tortured soul to examination. This shift from the “impression” that had been the watchword of the previous generation of the avant-garde to the power of “expression” for the generation of the 1890s was of momentous significance, and Munch was entirely at its forefront.
Demand amongst collectors for works from this profound stretch of Munch’s career continues to grow globally, fueled by the great scarcity of available examples. Few paintings from the 1890s-era still remain in private collections, and the works most closely related to Fertility, including Metabolism and Eye in Eye, are in the permanent collection of the Munch Museum in Oslo. The last significant work from the mid-1890s to come to market, the darkly seductive Vampire, set a new record of $38.1 million at auction in November of 2008.