Munch, a Norwegian national and prominent member of the Expressionist movement, had never met Nietzsche but was an avid student of his philosophies. The portrait was commissioned by Ernest Thiel, a Swedish banker and art collector, who wanted the painting to encapsulate the German thinker's ideas. The oil-on-canvas portrait, measuring seventy-nine inches by sixty-two inches, is on display at the Thiel Museum in Sweden.
Munch and Nietzsche, who both experienced loneliness and a fear on insanity, were kindred spirits in some respects and Thiel believed that the Norwegian painter's artworks were accurate representations of the German philosopher's outlook on life. Both men grew up in educated, middle-class households and entered the academic professions before they embarked upon the careers for which they became most famous while the spectre of illness, insanity and death was a familiar presence in their lives. Munch, for example, had suffered bereavement in his family and witnessed his sister enter an insane asylum while Nietzsche experienced physical and mental health problems throughout his life.
The subject of the portrait, middle-aged in appearance and with his right palm positioned over his left wrist, wears a long jacket over his suit and tie and is standing on a bridge that looms over a mountainous landscape. A white and blue building, which may represent an asylum, is visible at the left-hand side of the canvas while two blue hills appear in the distance. The yellows, oranges and reds of the sky contrast with the blues, greens and whites of the ground while the bridge is purple with brown railings. The artificial structures in the painting, such as the bridge and the building, consist of straight lines and geometric shapes while the naturalistic scenery is comprised of free-flowing curves.
Munch, having left Norway after a physical altercation with another artist, moved to Sweden and was contacted by Thiel during his stay in Copenhagen. Thiel, who had translated several of Nietzsche's writings from the original German, became interested in the artist after seeing him discussed in the press and wrote him a letter at the time of his exile. The Swedish art collector, who commissioned the portrait via letter in 1905, went on to become one of the Norwegian painter's most important patrons in the early twentieth century.