A painting of a naked woman arching her back sensuously, one arm over her head and the other behind her back, is one of art history’s most memorable female shapes. A preparatory design has been uncovered beneath Edvard Munch’s Madonna in the National Museum of Norway, demonstrating that the Norwegian master grappled with where to place her arms at first, depicting them just hanging down until inspiration struck.

The underdrawing also reveals that this masterpiece was most likely the first of Munch’s five painted versions completed in the 1890s.

The NM’s curator, Vibeke Waallann Hansen, told the Observer, “It’s really exciting.” You may observe Munch’s process in action. The underdrawing reveals that the initial pose he tried was a more traditional approach of portraying a woman, more akin to portraits. “The last pose was more creative.”

“There had been a hypothesis that there were some underdrawings because when you look closely at the painting, you can see some lines,” she continued. However, it was difficult to discern if they were underdrawing or painting. It’s fantastic to have this proof.”

Although there are surviving drafts for the composition, this is the first time the underdrawing can be seen on the painting itself, providing insight into its production.

“It certainly extends our knowledge of how Munch was working on that particular composition,” said Reinhold Heller, a famous Munch expert. He drew a lot of sketches for it. It’s wonderful to see him still working on the composition and incorporating the working process into the painting – so that the painting essentially changes in front of the viewer’s eyes.”

The underdrawing was discovered using infrared reflectography, which displays layers beneath a painting’s surface, by conservator Thierry Ford and photographer Brre Hstland at the NM.

Madonna has been defined as a sensuous, dreamy lady who is both powerful and submissive, expressing the ambivalence between fear and desire, according to art historians. Munch intended to depict a woman conceiving a child, stating of the painting, “The woman in a moment of surrender obtains the terrible beauty of a Madonna… The woman is a saint, a whore, and an unhappy devotee all at once.”

“The title Madonna, commonly associated with Jesus’ mother, contrasts with both the figure and the alternative title, Woman Making Love,” Waallann Hansen stated. A halo surrounds the person, however it is red rather than gold, as in a religious artwork. The title is crucial in creating this ambiguity between sexiness and religious associations. It’s more obvious in Woman Making Love.”

She went on to say that such a subject was “sensational” in 1890s Norway, and that it was criticized as “disgusting”: “But Munch also gained support from the progressive cultural elite.”

Henrik Ibsen, the playwright, paid a visit to the exhibition and informed Munch, “You will have the same experience as I.” You will have more friends if you have more enemies.”

Waallann Hansen described Madonna’s “mystery” as a picture that appears simple at first glance but shows its nuances “as you look at it more and more.”

“Is she standing?” she asked, referring to the figure’s background of undulating lines, on which she looks to be floating. Is she sitting or lying down?

What’s the backstory? Is it light or water? Or is it more of a feeling?

Munch considered putting her arms behind her back, which would make her appear to be standing. He added to the ambiguity with the predicament he ended up in.”

“Many of Munch’s paintings are easy to understand,” she remarked, referring to Madonna’s appeal. Madonna is about woman, love, and sexuality, while The Scream is about worry.

However, the more you look at the painting, the more ambiguous it becomes. It was given to the NM in 1909 as a gift, along with many other notable Munch works, and it has since become a symbol.

Because of the setting, it is also timeless. It’s impossible to tell if it’s 1890 or 1990.”

The other painted versions can be found in the Hamburg Kunsthalle and the Munch Museum in Oslo, as well as two private collections in the United States.

This first Madonna has undergone investigation and conservation in preparation for its exhibition in the Munch Room of the NM’s new building, which will open in Oslo in June next year – the Nordic countries’ greatest art museum.

Several of Munch’s most iconic paintings are included in the collection, including the original edition of The Scream.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.