Fifteen paintings by Edvard Munch can be found at the Kunsthaus Zürich – the largest collection of the artist outside his home country Norway.
From this collection, we would like to take a closer look at the story behind a small series of portraits that the Kunsthaus is keeping on permanent loan from the Herbert Eugen Esche-Foundation. Munch painted these in 1905 for the textile industrialist Herbert Eugen Esche. They hung in his house in Chemnitz, where they complimented the interior designed by the architect Henry van de Velde.
Munch was brought to the couple's attention by van de Velde in 1905, who himself had already portraits of his own family done. Hanni Esche was so taken with those that she asked for the artist's address and sent a request to Munch, who happily accepted in broken German. Recovering from an illness, he promised to travel to Chemnitz as soon as he felt better, which happened to be coming fall.
'My sincerest thanks for your friendly letter that pleased me a lot. […] I like painting children, as I love children very much and I happily accept your request. […] I am delighted to come visit your house – I paint pretty quickly, but I need some days to study the models. […] Please pardon me that I am not fluent in German.'
[Edvard Munch to Hanni Esche in 1905]
Munch, in fragile mental condition, stayed for four weeks in their house and fondly described it as 'Sanatorium Parkstrasse' in the family's guestbook upon his departure. This month and Munch's condition left a lasting impression on the Esches as well.
'My wife and I thought of you today […] and also this evening several times. You seemed to us like one of those poor abandoned humans who has been driven from his farm and hearth and does not quite know where to lay his head. On the other hand, it is perhaps quite good that you are standing on your own feet again and have to take care of yourself.'
[Herbert Esche to Edvard Munch in 1905]
'I thank you and your wife very much for the wonderful stay at Parkstrasse – I believe it did my nerves quite well that I felt so comfortable there. But it has shown that I am only comfortable if I am in a routine and on the countryside. For the time being, I acknowledge that in cities and in contact with many people I become ill – alcohol is a devil, but not the primary devil that lives inside of me. Hopefully a calm, long stay in the country will restore everything.'
[Edvard Munch to Herbert Esche in 1906]
'Everything is going well with us. The many holidays are now happily over. There were an unusually large number this year. - The children's picture - now quite heavy with its frame - has its place at the window. The portrait of Mrs. Esche hangs above the blue sofa. We are always happy about the paintings when we look at them.
Now some visitors still say: "we don't understand the painting", or: "I find the paintings disgusting". But it won't be long before people will have got used to them and will no longer find anything unusual about them […]. Though whether the people will then have gained an understanding for it or not, we do not know.'
[Herbert Esche to Edvard Munch in 1906]
'Please pardon my late reply, I have to arrange five exhibitions these days and could find no quiet moment to respond. […] I quite hope you can recover in St. Moritz – the memories, all those little things – give one continuously wounds – as strange as those memories are [unclear] – it is thus a good time to be away. It will also be quite strange for me, once I can hopefully come visit you.'
[Edvard Munch to Herbert Esche around 1911/12, draft]
'I had been meaning to write to you for a long time to thank you for the letter you wrote me in October after the death of my wife […] It has certainly become lonely in the house where there were once such happy people, but for the sake of the woman who has always been a good friend to you, I hope that you will keep your friendship to me and the children. What a treasure you have created for me in the portrait of my wife. How happy I am to possess this painting now.'
[Herbert Esche to Edvard Munch in 1912]
Before the beginning of World War II, the paintings were taken to Herbert Esches daughter Erdmute in Küsnacht. Of the original seven portraits, six are now in the Kunsthaus and one is lost. Edvard Munch stayed in touch with the Esche family long after 1905. Many of their letters have been preserved, some signed with 'best wishes from all the residents of Sanatorium Parkstrasse'.
Texts by Kunsthaus Zürich and the publication by Christian Klemm/Lukas Gloor: Edvard Munch und die Familie Esche. Die Bildnisse, die Sammlung, Zürich: Scheidegger und Spiess, 2016. The letters are digitalized on www.emunch.no