The motif of the painting Inheritance from 1897 is based on an experience Munch had at a hospital in Paris.
In a waiting room he observed a tear-stained mother with her dying child on her lap. The child was infected with syphilis, a fatal venereal disease that can be passed from parent to child. Munch has portrayed the crying woman with a naked child on her lap. The bench and the notices on the wall tell us that she’s in a waiting-room.
The little child’s body is depicted with an abnormally large head, thin limbs, and a red rash on its chest. Children born with syphilis often had specific symptoms such as rashes and deformed bodies.
The pattern on the woman’s dress represents falling leaves, a symbol of death.
The use of the colours in this picture is also symbolic. The composition of the colours - red, green, black and white reappears in several of pictures with the theme of illness and death, as in the painting Death In The Sick Room from 1893.
The mother-and-child motif has strong associations with traditional portrayals of Mary and Jesus Christ.
The picture provoked strong reactions in Munch’s day. Munch boldly touched upon a number of taboos such as sexuality, venereal diseases, and even prostitution, and with this painting he overstepped the borders of what was considered appropriate.