Edvard Munch’s Night in Saint-Cloud, 1890, is unique among Munch’s large body of moody nocturnal compositions. Whereas his later pieces set at night (1890 was still very early in Munch’s long career) tend to be heavy with melancholy and neuroticism, Night in Saint-Cloud balances the preoccupations of the central figure staring out the window with the interior he occupies. Night draws the viewer in to itself. I place it within a subset of Munch’s work that dwells on self abnegation of the subject- that is, the denial, elimination, or blending of the self with surroundings or other people.
In Night in Saint-Cloud, the figure at the window blends almost seamlessly into his environment. His hat is the same color as the wall paper, in almost exactly the same value. His coat matches the long couch he sits on. His legs are indistinct from the wall with the window. Even the highlight on his knee echoes the turquoise of the night sky outside. Across the interior plane, a consistent, feathered brushwork is used.
While some would focus on the comparison of Night in Saint-Cloud‘s tonalist style to artists like James Abbott McNeill Whistler (see above, Harmony in Red: Lamplight), I see Munch’s Night in Saint-Cloud as having its own unique subtext. For Whistler, the blending of subject with surrounding had a primarily aesthetic purpose. Evocation of an immersive mood and the transportation of the viewer to the space of the artist was Whistler’s objective. I’d argue that Munch’s Night does that as well as any Whistler painting. The context and the action of Munch’s subject suggest a more layered meaning, however.
Staring out the window, both fully immersed in his own surroundings and yet gazing outward, Night in Saint-Cloud’s subject appears to be fused with the world around him. There is a hermetic tone to this piece: there’s a juxtaposition between the room which seals its living and inanimate objects together into an enclosed unison versus the varied and vibrant outside world. Perhaps he who is closed within longs to be an individual among individuals in the life of the distant city. We see a much more up close and personal preoccupation with that in Munch’s work later on. Or perhaps the safety of union with one’s immediate surroundings engenders the mental stability needed to open the window to the mysterious world of night.
Further exploring the theme of self abnegation, Edvard Munch went on to paint numerous subsequent compositions of figures blending into each other and their surroundings after Night in Saint-Cloud. He painted other versions of Night in Saint-Cloud, including a lithograph. In many of his variations on the theme of figures in the night by a window, the loss or erasure of self takes on a romantic or sexual meaning. Man and woman are fused together into one by the kiss. The kiss becomes a theme of unity. See the brief summary of Munch’s Kiss/Night Window pieces from the following years after 1890’s Night in Saint-Cloud below:
The theme of loss of the self into unison with another is nowhere more apparent than 1897’s The Kiss (above). Here, Munch fully blends the faces of the lovers into one. They blend somewhat into the room together. The multiple fusions- of lovers into their enclosed interior and lovers into themselves- takes on the meaning of two people entering the space of envelopment into each other, apart from the world. The theme of separation articulated so beautifully in Night in Saint-Cloud is present. Compared to Night, however, the purpose and meaning of that separation is more obvious.
In these later pieces with kissing figures, the hermetic theme of Night in Saint-Cloud is prominent. Their symbolism, however, is much more direct. What sets Night apart from these later works is the mystery of its figure. We do not know his mood. Turned away from us, we can imagine him however we want.
Do we imagine Night in Saint-Cloud’s gazing figure to be happy? Our answer says a great deal about us individually. We bring our perspective into the painting. Is he thinking about the girl he just met, wondering where she is and if she’s thinking of him? Does he long for companionship? Is his lover asleep in the room with him while he gazes out the window? The speculative possibilities are endless. That’s the enduring charm of Night in Saint-Cloud: what we ask of it we secretly ask of ourselves.