The motif Woman, or Sphinx, can be found in a number of versions, as a painting, etching, and lithograph. Another title [sometimes] used for the motif is Woman in Three Stages.
The three women give us associations of the different sides of woman’s nature - as Munch saw them – and to the cycle of life: youth, maturity and old age.
Standing apart from the three women is a man by a tree trunk, his eyes lowered. In front of him we can see a flame-red flower, a symbol of love and pain.
Munch and several of his contemporary artist colleagues had a difficult relationship with women. They could see women as complicated and mystical, and full of contradictions.
Woman in her diversity is a mystery to man. Woman is at one and the same time saint, whore, and an unhappily devoted…
Munch often used several descriptions for each of the three women. When the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen showed an interest in the motif at an exhibition in 1895, Munch explained that the three women represented “the dreaming woman, the woman who loves life, and the woman as a nun”.
Four years later Ibsen published the play “When the Dead Awaken”, where the three women – Irene, Maja and the nun - bear a clear resemblance to the women in Munch’s picture