Modersohn-Becker, Paula (1876–1907)

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Modersohn-Becker, Paula (1876–1907)

German painter whose striking and imaginative pictures moved beyond the naturalism and realism of late 19th-century German art to make her a pioneer of German Expressionism at the start of the 20th century. Name variations: Paula Becker; Paula Modersohn-Becker. Pronunciation: MOE-der-son. Born Paula Becker in Dresden, Germany, on February 8, 1876; died in Worpswede of a heart attack following childbirth on November 21, 1907; daughter of Carl Woldemar Becker (a civil engineer employed by the railroad) and Mathilde von Bültzingslöwen Becker (a descendant of a minor aristocratic family with ties to the military); studied to be a governess at the Bremen Teachers' Training Seminary (1893–95) and studied art in London (1892), Berlin (1897–98), and Paris (1900–07); married Otto Modersohn, on May 25, 1901; children: Mathilde Modersohn (b. 1907); (step-daughter) Elspeth Modersohn.

Settled in artists' colony at Worpswede (1898); had first public exhibit of her painting (1899); on first trip to Paris, met Rainer Maria Rilke (1900); on secondtrip to Paris, met Auguste Rodin (1903); made third trip to Paris (1905); estranged from her husband, started fourth (and most extended stay in Paris), gave second exhibit of her painting, reconciled with her husband (1906); returned to Worpswede, became pregnant, rendered final paintings.

Selected paintings:

Elspeth (Ludwig-Roselius Collection, Bremen, 1902); Clara Rilke-Westhoff (Kunsthalle Bremen, 1905); Self-Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Day (Ludwig-Roselius Collection, Bremen, 1906); Self-Portrait with Camellia Branch (Museum Folkwang, Essen, 1907).

Paula Modersohn-Becker lived only 31 years and sold only one painting. Although she was haunted by fears of early death and deeply immersed in her family responsibilities, she nonetheless produced forceful, important works of art. In all, her career produced 400 paintings and 1,000 drawings. Note critics Anne Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin : "She was the first German painter to assimilate the Post-Impressionist currents she discovered for herself in Paris." Freeing herself from the conservative art world in her native country, she developed a personal style, "creating some unquestioned masterpieces during her brief career."

Paula Modersohn-Becker spent most of her short life in the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II (r. 1888–1918), although a crucial influence on her art and personality was a series of four stays in Paris. Beyond her role as an artist, Modersohn-Becker's life exemplifies the tension between a talented woman's desire to have a satisfying career and the competing claims of family life.

Germany in the early 20th century contained groups of artists who wished to break away from the rigid standards exemplified by the teaching in the Munich and Düsseldorf art academies. They wanted to paint rural landscapes and the experiences of German country dwellers. Many of them took refuge in rural artists' colonies, like Worpswede near Bremen where Modersohn-Becker worked for much of her life. There they could set their own agenda. Such groups sometimes reflected romantic ideas current in German culture such as those of Julius Langbehn in Rembrandt as Educator. In that widely influential work, Langbehn wrote about the need to escape the harsh, divided society of modern, industrialized Germany. He called for a return to a unified cultural community stressing the virtues of rural life. While these interesting developments took place on the German scene, Paris remained the international center of the art world, the magnet that attracted a host of aspiring artists from other lands.

In Germany as in other European countries, feminist agitation for greater rights and opportunities for women challenged a status quo in which men dominated society. European women were restricted in a variety of ways. Even their possibility of becoming artists was hampered by restrictions on their admission to leading art schools, and, if admitted, on their right to study alongside men and to compete for prizes.

Paula Becker was born in Dresden on February 8, 1876. The door to a future career as an artist was opened in part by the cultivated, upper-middle-class environment in which she grew up. Her father was a civil engineer who worked for the railroad; her mother was a member of an aristocratic family with a tradition of service in the military. The third of seven children, she moved with her family to Bremen when she was 12.

As a proper daughter of the German bourgeoisie, Paula was expected to marry or, at the least, to train for appropriate employment, such as a career as a governess. While never whole-heartedly in favor of her ambitions as an artist, her parents nevertheless recognized her early talent in drawing and gave her significant support, permitting her to study art in Bremen and London. Returning to Germany in 1893, she bowed to convention and her parents' wishes by attending a teachers' college where she completed the course with flying colors.

In 1896, now in Berlin, Modersohn-Becker returned to her passion for art. Living with her uncle's family in the suburbs, she studied at a school for women artists and spent her spare time in Berlin viewing paintings. She now started her lifelong practice of intense and lengthy visits to the art museums in every city she visited. Her stay in Berlin led to her encounter with an important proponent for German feminism, Natalie von Milde . Von Milde was leading a campaign to end legal restrictions on German women's involvement with political meetings and organizations. After hearing von Milde, Paula gave in to her brother's objections and refused to sign the petition the feminist leader was promoting. She was attracted by the reasoning behind the petition, but von Milde's rhetoric, she noted, "immediately puts me on the male side." She was also inclined "to let the important men handle the issue and to believe in their judgment."

The aspiring young painter began her extended association with the artists' colony at Worpswede in the summer of 1897. Through a family friend, she was able to study with Fritz Mackensen, a rising German artist who was a founding member of the colony. Located a few miles outside Bremen, Worpswede offered a dramatic rural landscape, inexpensive housing, and willing models among the picturesque peasant population. For young German artists enamored with Langbehn's call for a return to a purer, rural Germany, colonies like Worpswede, of which there were several, were a way to put their dreams into action. Other young Germans pursued Langbehn's dream by their passion for hiking and folk songs.

Modersohn-Becker's family, who had mixed feelings about her ambitions, now emphasized their desire for her to pursue a conventional existence. With one son in medical school and family finances in some difficulty, Paula's father urged her to take a post as a governess. Despite her passion for art—she had haunted the museums in Vienna the previous year—Modersohn-Becker agreed in 1898 to put her fulltime art studies aside for a year. "In my free time," she wrote, "I'll draw so that my hand won't grow stiff." Luckily for her career as an artist, however, she then received a small inheritance that allowed her to support herself without becoming a governess.

At Worpswede, Modersohn-Becker found herself restless as the pupil of Fritz Mackensen. Mackensen and the other Worpswede painters may have chosen new subjects for their painting, but they continued to emphasize many of the techniques of traditional 19th-century German art. The lessons that Mackensen taught her emphasized the need to capture nature with meticulous drawing and precise detail. Even before the trips to Paris that encouraged her to give full scope to her individual creativity, Modersohn-Becker sought to discover a deeper reality. She turned away from the landscape painting favored by many at Worpswede, looking instead to human subjects from the village community. It was her hope to paint them in an incisive and empathetic way, digging beneath superficial appearances. She expressed her ambition by citing the thoughts of Marie Bashkirtseff , the young Russian painter who had died in 1884, leaving a revealing personal diary. "I say as she does," Modersohn-Becker wrote. "If only I can become something."

In March 1899, she first met Otto Modersohn, a fellow painter at Worpswede. Her letters at this time present a young woman filled with a mixture of exhilaration and doubt. "I see my goals will part from yours," she wrote her sister Milly who seemed headed for conventional life as a married woman. "Nevertheless, I must follow

them." To her mother, she confessed: "I want to make of myself the finest that can be. I know it's selfish but it's a selfishness that is great and noble and that gives itself to a tremendous cause." By this point in her career, she had explored the possibilities in painting female nudes, children, the peasants of Worpswede, and still-lifes. Nonetheless, the first paintings she exhibited in a group show in Bremen in 1899 received a harsh response from the critics.

At the start of 1900, the ambitious but uncertain young painter started the first of her four visits to Paris. Even here women artists were not on a par with their male counterparts—they were barred, for example, from competing for major prizes. Still, they had greater freedom in attending art classes and painting from nude models than was available in Germany. Modersohn-Becker plunged into her formal studies in the morning, then devoted her formidable energies to the museums of Paris in the afternoons. The rich variety of work present in Paris came to her as a revelation. In her several visits to the French capital, she immersed herself both in the work of innovators like Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Auguste Rodin, and in the artistic legacy of the Ancient World and the Middle Ages.

Her return to Worpswede in mid-1900 heightened the tensions in both her personal and professional life. Otto Modersohn had recently become a widower, and he now sought the company of his young fellow artist. Her parents, who continued to oppose her plans for a career as a painter, objected as well to her personal involvement with this older man. In her painting, she followed the inspiration of the contemporary artists she had encountered in Paris, moving increasingly far from the conventional painting her colleagues at Worpswede were producing. In a way that perhaps reflected the various pressures she felt, Modersohn-Becker began to express concerns about her mortality. "I know I will not live very long," she wrote in July 1900. But, "if love blooms for me before I go and if I paint three good pictures, then I can leave willingly with flowers in my hands and hair."

The desire burns in me to be great in simplicity.

—Paula Modersohn-Becker

The year 1900 brought her the start of a deep friendship with Rainer Maria Rilke, a frequent visitor to Worpswede. More important was her growing involvement with Otto Modersohn. She noted their common interest in art. "Getting married shouldn't be a reason for me not to become something," she wrote her mother. But she was even more emphatic in stressing her desire for motherhood and her hopes that her future husband would be a good influence on her. "I'm such a complicated person, so perpetually trembling," and she hoped his calmness would help her. Her affection for her husband-to-be, whom she referred to as her "red beard" and "red king," was obvious in her letters to him.

Within a year after her marriage in May 1901, Modersohn-Becker was immersed in a web of personal difficulties. She was shaken by the death of her father and by the rupture of her longstanding friendship with fellow artist Clara Westhoff , who had withdrawn from their intimacy after marrying Rilke. Most disturbing of all, her own marriage proved disappointing. By early 1902, she was telling her journal that she was as lonely as she had been as a child. The lifelong yearning for "a companion for one's soul," which had sustained her through the years, she now saw as a disappointing illusion. At this time, she again expressed her premonition of an early death: visiting the grave of Otto's first wife, Paula set down detailed specifications for her own final resting place.

She found herself sustained during the rest of the year, however, by a growing confidence in her painting. In letters to her relatives, she noted her growing creative power and her desire to move away from the techniques Mackensen practiced. She spoke of painting in "runic characters," with her own voice "growing greater within me and broader." Her style indeed reflected the massive runic letters of the alphabet of ancient tribes of pre-Christian Germany. The painting she made of her stepdaughter Elspeth, which Paula saw as a stylistic breakthrough in her work, showed the child as a flat, massive figure dominating a small landscape.

A second trip to Paris, this time for six weeks in 1903, brought new artistic stimulation and new pangs of guilt over her obligations to her family. She visited the Louvre daily and immersed herself in Japanese art and the work of Rodin. Paris struck her as a city with "champagne in the air" and art everywhere, and she urged her husband to join her. At the same time, she knew her ties to Otto and Elspeth would make her pay a heavy price for the things she was learning in Paris. Her equivocal status in the art world was reflected when she visited her hero Rodin. Rilke introduced her with a written note that described her as "the wife of a distinguished painter."

Modersohn-Becker spent the next two years in Worpswede in an active life that combined her roles as wife, stepmother, and painter. Occasionally, she expressed a deep-seated frustration with the shape of her life. Otto's brief absence on a trip led her to remark, "I feel so divinely free."

In 1905, she returned to Paris for her third visit, once again for only six weeks. By now, she accepted the fact that modern artists such as Matisse, whose works fascinated her, had no appeal for Otto. She wanted to stay for a year if she were free to do so: "Within the walls of this city reign an enormous life and an enormous spirit. It has an almost mystical effect on me." Back in Worpswede her work showed a new surge of originality, but she found the prospect of motherhood increasingly appealing. Visiting the houses of the peasants she painted, she found a new crop of children, and, she noted, "I looked at all this wriggling new life with undisguised envy."

The crisis in her marriage came in February 1906. She left her husband, urging him to realize that the two of them could go on without each other. Moving to Paris for her fourth and most extended stay, she wrote Otto to exclaim (in the past tense), "How I loved you," and regretting the pain she knew she was causing. Nonetheless, she insisted on the need to test herself in the world. By May, she told her sister that she was living in the happiest period of her life. To her friend the sculptor Bernhard Hoetger, she declared: "I've begun to believe that I will become something." She worked night and day, happily sleeping surrounded by her paintings. Nonetheless, her letters and journal were filled with concerns about the suffering she was inflicting on her family. By the close of 1906, Paula and Otto had renewed their marriage. They moved in together in Paris and made plans to return to Worpswede the following spring. At the same time, Modersohn-Becker received her first taste of public praise. The art critic of the Bremen Nachrichten greeted her work on exhibit in the north German city by noting her "serious and powerful talent," nurtured by her stay in Paris, and marked by "an exceptional power." This was only her second exhibit, and the response was dramatically different from the criticism she had received in 1899.

Now recognized as a rising young painter, Modersohn-Becker was still caught in a swirl of emotions. The praise she had received, she wrote her sister in mid-November 1906, "gave me more satisfaction than pleasure," since she found her true satisfaction in creation, not in the fact that others noticed. She and Otto now planned to return to Worpswede, and she expected to be content there so long as she had a place where she could continue her work. In another of her references to an early death, she declared she would be "grateful for whatever part of love has come my way. As long as one stays healthy and doesn't die too soon."

Modersohn-Becker's last year of life saw her return to Worpswede in the spring of 1907. She unexpectedly found herself pregnant and spent the summer and fall months in severe discomfort. Nonetheless, she continued to paint, to review and criticize the work she had just completed, and even to plan a new trip to Paris. On November 2, she gave birth to a girl whom she named Mathilde. Surviving photographs show mother and child during their brief time together. On November 21, her physician gave Modersohn-Becker permission to get out of bed. She had barely arisen, combed her hair, and pinned on some roses when she died from a sudden heart attack. Almost a year to the day later, a heartbroken Rainer Maria Rilke presented his publisher with his "Requiem (For a Friend)," lamenting her tragic death.

Critics have lauded the work Modersohn-Becker produced in her last years and hailed her, along with Emile Nolde, as a pioneer of German Expressionism. In Expressionism, as art historian Werner Haftmann and his collaborators have written, "The center of gravity no longer lay in things themselves, but in the sensation they produced, for which a new language now had to be found." Thus, after her stays in Paris, the young German painter sought to reach "the simple core of things and convey the gripping emotion ignited by this new reality." Her monumental images, simplified forms, and striking colors sought and obtained a profound reality. Feminist critic Whitney Chadwick has noted how Modersohn-Becker applied these techniques to the female nude, producing "monumental images of idealized motherhood." Perhaps the most telling comment on her works came from Otto Modersohn before his marriage to Paula. "Everything about them breathed a strong, individual experience, a rare, creative individuality in form and color."


Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.

Haftmann, Werner, et al. German Art of the Twentieth Century. NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1957.

Harris, Anne Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1990. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

The Letters and Journals of Paula Modersohn-Becker. Translated and annotated by J. Diane Radycki. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1980.

Perry, Gillian. Paula Modersohn-Becker: Her Life and Work. NY: Harper & Row, 1979.

Petersen, Karen, and J.J. Wilson. Women Artists: Recognition and Reappraisal from the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century. NY: New York University Press, 1976.

Wydenbruck, Nora. Rilke: Man and Poet. 1950. Reprint. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972.

suggested reading:

Busch, Gunter, ed. Paula Modersohn-Becker: The Letters and Journals. Northwestern, 1990.

Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work. NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979.

Parker, Rozsika, and Griselda Pollock. Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology. NY: Pantheon Books, 1981.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California