Dagny Juel, Norway’s “Madonna”

An unusual life, a mysterious death

Photo: National Museum of Norway
Edvard Munch’s painting “Madonna” from 1894, is one of the most famous paintings in Norwegian art history. Dagny Juel is believed to have been Munch’s model, although he at times denied that it had been Dagny.

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

There is a permanent exhibit about her life at Kvinnemuseet, the Women’s Musuem in Kongsvinger, Norway, and the museum café there is called Café Dagny. She was immortalized by the world-renowned Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, for whom she stood as a model for several of his most famous works. Described as a “love goddesss,” Dagny Juel Przybyszewska (1867–1901) lived a short and intense life that has taken on mythical proportions.

Dagny was born into a well-to-do upper-class family in Kongsvinger in eastern Norway, the second of four daughters. From early on, she was educated as a pianist, gifted enough to be sent to Erfurt, Germany, to study music. But by 1890, she and her sister moved to Kristiania (today Oslo), where she began to move in bohemian circles. This is most likely where she first came in contact with Munch, whose paintings of her would immortalize her to the world.

But how did this young beautiful woman from Kongsvinger become one of the most celebrated, even mythical figures of the Scandinavian avant-gardist of the fin de siècle?

Photos: public domain
Top: The Przybyszewskis posed for a photo taken about 1897 or 1898.
Bottom: A portrait of Dagny Juel Przybyszewska, printed in her book of poetry published in Warsaw, 1902.

In 1892, Dagny moved to Berlin to continue her studies and possibly to be with Munch, who had gone there to stage an exhibition of his works. His art caused a scandal and gave him a certain amount of notoriety in the Prussian capital, which may be why he decided to stay there.

At that time, Berlin was the epicenter of the European bohèm movement, and Dagny quickly became a center of attention at the Zum Schwarzen Ferkel (The Black Piglet) tavern, where many of the Scandinavians gathered. There she met Swedish playwright August Strindberg, and the two had short-lived affair of about three weeks. Strindberg called her “Aspasia” after the Greek goddess, inferring that she was a very sexualized, free, and open woman. The relationship did not end well. Dagny said Strindberg was “too old and too fat” for her, and he went on to demonize her in his work.

But there were others who became infatuated with Dagny, who would entertain the men at Zum Schwarzen Ferkel with her graceful solo dances. She was sexually confident and embraced the principles of free love. She continued to model for Munch and other artists, an she began to write. During her short lifetime, she would produce four plays, four prose-lyrical texts, one novella, and a handful of poems, today recognized for their literary value.

It was at Zum Schwarzen Ferkel that Dagny met her husband, Polish author Stanisław Przybyszewski. They married in 1893 and had two children together, Zenon (born in 1895) and Iwa (born in 1897). The couple made their home first in Berlin and later in Krakow, Poland. Their homes were lively social and cultural gathering places for the avant-garde writers and artists of the day.

Photo: Munch Museum / Wikidata Today, Edvard Munch’s famous portrait of Dagny Juel Przybyszewska from 1893 hangs in the Munch Museum in Oslo.

In addition to writing her own texts, Juel worked as a translator and curator for other artists in her circle. She introduced Munch’s work to Poland and wrote articles for German newspapers about the Norwegian scene. She and her husband founded the cultural journal Pan, which later became a very important platform for the Scandinavian Symbolists.

But the couple faced many difficulties, both in a practical and psychological sense. They suffered from a constant shortage of money, and at times, Dagny sent her two children, a boy, Zenon, and a daughter, Ivi, back to her parents in Norway. Her husband’s alcoholism and frequent extramarital affairs troubled her. Przybyszewski seemed to be incapable of living within the confines of a marriage. In fact, he had deserted his common-law wife, Martha Foerder, and the two children that he had with her for his Norwegian lover. This did not prevent him from fathering a third child with his earlier mistress during his marriage to Dagny. Przybyszewski was even suspected of murdering Martha, who suddenly died, but he was acquitted when her death was ruled a suicide.

By 1901, the Przybyszewski marriage was in a deep crisis. Both husband and wife had been unfaithful to each other, and they struggled economically. When their friend Władysław Emeryk offered to take them to Georgia to find a more peaceful existence in the countryside, they accepted.

Photo: public domain
Dagny Juel Przybyszewska was photographed with her young son, Zenon. The little boy was with his mother when she was tragically killed in Tbilisi.

But this journey brought tragedy, not peace and reconciliation to the troubled couple. Emeryk, who had traveled ahead with Dagny, shot her in the head and killed her at the small “Grand Hotel” in Tiflis. The next day, he attempted to shoot himself.The circumstances around Dagny’s death have never been fully understood. Was it the action of an unstable jilted lover, or did Emeryk possibly plot to kill her with her egotistical and selfish husband, who found himself entangled in an ugly web of relationships? It all remains a mystery.

Later Emeryk wrote of Dagny: “She was not of this world, she was far too ethereal for anyone to understand her true nature.”

To this day, Dagny Juel Przybyszewska’s life remains an enigma to us, as she has gained recognition as a writer and feminist icon ahead of her time.

Also see: Tbilisi’s Norwegian greats, Georgia on my mind and Georgia through a Norwegian lens in the April 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.