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"Painted by a madman": Mysterious message on "The Scream" was written by Edvard Munch himself, experts reveal

Barely visible in the top left-hand corner of one of the world's most famous paintings are the words, "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 on 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 don't impact the painting, have shown that Munch left the tiny sentence on 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 from the time.  

"The writing is without a doubt Munch's own," said Mai Britt Guleng, curator at the National Museum. "The handwriting itself, as well as events that happened in 1895, when Munch showed the painting in Norway for the first time, all point in the same direction."

Infrared photography at the National Museum of Norway. Annar Bjorgli/The National Museum

The museum confirmed the inscription's origins while the painting is undergoing extensive conservation in preparation for its installation in Oslo, Munch's home city, next year.  

"The writing has always been visible to the naked eye, but it's been very difficult to interpret," said Thierry Ford, paintings conservator 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 painting was finished." 

After "The Scream" debuted in 1895, Munch received sharp criticism, including from the art community, and a medical student, Johan Scharffenberg, who questioned his mental state during a debate at which Munch was present. 

Henrik Grosch, then director of the Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, wrote that Munch's paintings showed that one can no longer "consider Munch a serious man with a normal brain."

For years, Munch referred to the comments in his notes, clearly deeply hurt by the judgements. 

"The theory is that Munch wrote this after hearing Scharffenberg's judgment on his mental health, sometime in or after 1895," said Guleng of the inscription. "It is reasonable to assume that he did it quite soon after, either during or following the exhibition."

An infrared photo of Munch's inscription on "The Scream."  Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

The Expressionist painting is now widely celebrated in modern times, considered an enduring representation of anxiety and anguish. In his diary, Munch wrote that the painting was inspired by "a gust of melancholy."

Both Munch's father and grandfather suffered from depression, and his sister was admitted to the 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," said Guleng. "Writing on the finished painting shows that creating for Munch was a continuous 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 version sold for nearly $120 million during a Sotheby's auction in New York — a world record at the time. 

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