In the 1890s, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch ran afoul of his painting teacher, Leon Bonnat. “Use your eyes, young man,” Bonnat shouted when he saw that Munch had depicted a pinkish brick wall in lurid green hues. Munch gathered his things and stormed out, and that was the last art class he’d ever take.

Today, Munch is known for his bold, impressionistic use of color — as in his famous painting “The Scream,” which presents an anguished figure beneath a blood-red and orange sky. If you’re interested in seeing 21 less famous examples of Munch’s emotion-driven color choices, drop by the National Gallery of Art exhibit “Edvard Munch: Color in Context,” which opens Sunday.

“By pushing for color that corresponds more to feeling or imagination than to external reality, he was questioning conventions that had reigned for centuries,” exhibit curator Jonathan Bober says.

Munch’s choices also reflected a Victorian belief that feelings manifest themselves in blobs of color that some people could actually see — green for sympathy and light brown for selfishness, for example. The intellectuals espousing this scheme were known as theosophists, and they were nearly as mainstream as scientists and philosophers at the time.

“Munch claimed to be able to see these auras of color around people,” Bober says.
We asked Bober to share how Munch’s contemporaries might have interpreted a few of the artist’s most famous prints.

National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW;
Sun. through Jan. 28, free.

‘Old Man Praying’
(1902, woodcut)
The Victorians used yellow to indicate high intelligence, Bober says, so its use in this print suggests that the old man depicted has gained wisdom even though his body has declined. The fact that he is looking out a window suggests he’s reflecting back on his life, Bober adds.

‘Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair’
(1896, woodcut)
“The woman is brown and orange, which in the theosophists’ scheme is usually selfishness and sensuality [respectively], while the man is light green, implying sympathy,” Bober says. If these two are lovers, the woman’s interest in the man is shallow, while the man is more truly in love, he notes. The man is being swallowed up by her hair, too, which suggests the woman has the upper hand, he adds.

‘Madonna’
(1895, lithograph)
For the Victorians, blue represented religious fervor, so it’s an apt color for the waves around this Madonna’s head, Bober says. Overall, however, the colors in this piece are merely heightened versions of naturalistic colors, perhaps to counterbalance the intense imagery, including the sperm swimming along the edges and the fetus in the lower left-hand corner.

‘Girl’s Head Against the Shore’
(1899, woodcut)
This landscape shows a woman in the foreground, with a shoreline in the distance — the woman blends into the land behind her, however. “There’s a suggestion of isolation of the figure from other people, but she’s also inseparable from the environment,” Bober says. The bright orange of the distant landscape suggests sensuality, and the brownish hue of the woman’s skin could indicate selfishness, he adds.