Progression of Art
Birch Tree in a Landscape
As the title reflects, a large birch tree dominates the foreground of Paula Modersohn-Becker's early landscape painting. Split at its base - perhaps alluding to divided interests as woman and artist - the tree rises up in two large white columns. Set in the fall season, the leaves are depicted in a vivid orange, and in the background stands another smaller birch in an expansive green field.
The painting is a good example of Modersohn-Becker's early focus on landscapes, gleaned in part from the overarching interest in landscape painting to be found at the artist colony at Worpswede. The focus was particularly strong for Fritz Mackensen, the founder and for the artist's future husband, Otto Modersohn. Thus Modersohn-Becker too chose to depict the simple beauty of surrounding landscapes for a time. Of her first experience with the colony, she later wrote, "...Worpswede, Worpswede, you are always on my mind. That was real feeling to the tip of my tiniest finger. Your mighty grandiose pines! I call them my men, broad, gnarled and large, and yet with fine, fine sinews and nerves. I think this is an ideal artistic form. And your birches, the delicate slender young women, which bring joy to the eye." Here is a similar albeit visual manifestation of these strong grateful feelings expressed towards the wonder of nature.
Interestingly though, as Modersohn-Becker began spending more time in Paris, she became increasingly influenced by modern art. As she became heavily inspired by the work of the Post-Impressionists including Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, her landscapes became looser and more abstract than those by other members of the colony. Indeed, within a few years, Modersohn-Becker moved away from landscapes all together, turning instead to still lifes and then to portraits. Here, however, one importantly sees a full embrace of natural themes, and reveals the artist's clear inspiration from Impressionist artists such as Claude Monet.
Oil on composite board - Collection of Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Still Life with Pumpkins
This Modersohn-Becker still life in classic formation consists of a table with red and white-checkered tablecloth upon which is placed a plate overflowing with oranges, some apples, and a large cut pumpkin.
While best known for her portraits, Modersohn-Becker also created a large body of still lifes, with the most notable similar to this one and completed in the same year. According to art historian Diane Radycki, the artist, "...was only sporadically occupied with still life for the first two years after she quit landscape painting, even though she painted at least one such picture every year.[...Then] [i]n 1905 [...] there was a dramatic increase in the number of still lifes she painted, so much that over the next two years she produced more than fifty of them."
This particular still life importantly highlights the increasing influence of Post-Impressionism on Modersohn-Becker's painting style. Specifically, the compositional elements of the bunched tablecloth and casually placed fruits are reminiscent of the still lifes of Paul Cézanne. Similarly, the loosely but heavily-applied brushstrokes, most notably on the pumpkin flesh itself, also recall the techniques of Cezanne, as well as further revealing the influence of Vincent van Gogh. Evident here, is an artist, who had fully embraced the Paris modernism of which she too was an integral part.
Oil on cardboard - Collection of Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany
Reclining Mother-and-Child Nude II
As the title describes, in this painting, Paula Modersohn-Becker depicts a naked woman lying in a cradling embrace with her infant. Eyes closed, the mother lovingly protects the head of the naked child with her arm; there is also the possibility that the baby is breastfeeding. This would have been a profound and shocking image at the time that it was created. To expose a new mother and child in such a realistic pose, in utter contrast to previous idealized religious iconography, was a completely invisible experience at the turn of the twentieth century. Indeed, the subject remained very unusual and overlooked until early in the twenty first century, roughly 100 years later.
For the pioneering Modersohn-Becker, she recognized that this was one of the themes through which, as a female artist, she was able to push the boundaries of gender and in turn to empower women through their own everyday experience. Her approach to the long-established tradition of mother and child portraits was primarily groundbreaking in that she depicted the duo in the nude and furthermore, often in moments of simple, innocent, and shared intimacy. Indeed, this is a modern approach to maternity and one that matches the contemporary photographs depicted in Home Truths: Motherhood and Photography (2013), a seminal exhibition on the subject held in London over a century after Modersohn-Becker's similar explorations.
Modersohn-Becker gives no attempt to appeal to the male gaze, nor does she provide an overly-perfected, Madonna-like depiction of a mother and her child. Radycki reasons, "the frank exhibition of the body, from breast to belly to pubic hair, sets this apart from all previous maternities, and points not back but forward. The 'generic motif' for Modersohn-Becker is a decidedly twentieth-century one: the New Woman, envisioned alternately as an emaciated figure or as a gargantuan amazon." She was a trailblazer, a rebel, and a revolutionary painter and human being.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, Bremen, Germany
Self-Portrait Nude with Amber Necklace, Half-length I
In this self-portrait, Paula Modersohn-Becker depicts herself from the waist up, in a field of green leaves and white and red flowers. She is nude, with breasts exposed, and she wears a beloved amber necklace, which also appears in other self-portraits. She holds a pink flower in each hand and a further three flowers line the crown of her pulled-back hair forming a Flora-reminiscent, Spring-like crown. Indeed, the flowers form a literal circle around the artist presenting to the viewer the message that she respects nature above all and believes in the cycles that it creates.
While portraits had long been a part of Modersohn-Becker's oeuvre it was not until 1905 (only two years before her death) that she turned to herself as her main figural subject. While there had been a tradition of female artists painting self-portraits, in part because models were so limited for women prior to the onset of modernism, Modersohn-Becker still broke barriers here as she was the first woman to paint herself in the nude.
The colorful and lush backdrop of the painting adds a hint of influence coming from the Tahitian paintings of Paul Gauguin, an artist whom she was known to admire. Interestingly, in this particular painting the artist looks to the side rather than directly at the viewer. She appears happy in an inner world, and it is easy to believe that this is a woman most at peace with her own private pursuits.
Oil on cardboard - Private collection
Self-Portrait on 6th Wedding Anniversary
In this extraordinary self-portrait, Paula Modersohn-Becker imagines herself pregnant. As in the previous image - with a circle created by flowers - here the vision of encircling is created by the artist's hands wrapped around her own pregnant belly. Once again she wears her amber necklace and leaves her breasts exposed, whilst this time she looks directly out at the viewer. The image is mysterious in that it presents a fantasy rather than an actual pregnancy; in this sense it opens up the experience for questioning, not simply presenting the state as natural and thus to be accepted and succumbed to. Modersohn-Becker at this time was a practicing artist living alone in Paris; she was discontent with her marriage and likely asking the question as to if she would like to become a mother, and in turn, how the event would change her life.
Many artists more recently have investigated the theme of maternal ambivalence, most notably perhaps Tracey Emin. Emin investigated being pregnant at moments when she was, and at times when she simply longed to be, but was not. Modersohn-Becker's image has further added poignancy knowing that the artist did subsequently become pregnant the following year, only to die three weeks later. This element of tragedy aligns the artist's practice with another artist who revolutionized our view of motherhood, that of Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz regularly investigated the bond between mother and child, with her images infused with the foresight of sadness knowing that she would lose a child.
According to the art historian Diane Radycki, having painted herself nude several times, "of all her self-portraits, the most controversial is the one she painted of herself nude, when she was thirty. It makes reference to herself as a woman in the image and as an artist in the inscription: 'I painted this at age 30 / on my 6th wedding day. / P.B." The fact is, as Radycki explains, "Modersohn-Becker rarely signed, titled, dated, or showed anyone her work" but here she did. In so doing, she is asserting her independence; painting a self-portrait at a time that she has left her family (and any sort of conventional life) to pursue a career as an artist. That she signed the painting with the initials "P.B." (Paula Becker) and did not include her married initial further visually supports her decision of what is most important in her life: her career and not her family, or at least not her marriage. In fact according to Radycki, the artist had once stated upon settling in Paris in 1906, "now that I am free, I will make something of myself. I almost believe, by this year.' Thirty was a deadline of particular importance to her, and she said so." In this painting then, she is providing evidence for the entire world to see that she has truly arrived as an artist, having found a subject of great originality to speak revealingly about.
Indeed, the artist has painted herself as if she is pregnant despite the fact that she was not. Until this point, the artist is not known to have shown any interest in being a mother and she introduces the subject ripe with questions and challenges. Whether longing for a child at this point, or metaphorically suggesting that she was pregnant with ideas, the painting exists as an allusive and open-ended statement for our consideration.
Tempera on canvas - Collection of Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, Bremen, Germany
Old Peasant Woman with Arms Crossed on Her Chest
An old woman dominates this late painting by Paula Modersohn-Becker. Plainly dressed in a blue long-sleeved frock and white cap, the woman stares vacantly out in front of her with her arms crossed upon her chest. The gesture appears somewhat religious and her attire suggests that the woman is poor. Set against a green leafy background, the only other burst of color can be found in three small yellow flowers resting on the sitter's lap. In many respects, the portrait is very close to the work of Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh was always attracted to the humanity of the working classes and had a tendency to elevate their position by way of introducing illuminating light sources and had a similar focus on large toiling hands in his paintings. It is even arguable, that Modersohn-Becker includes yellow flowers in her painting to make clear that the image is done in homage of Van Gogh.
Once Modersohn-Becker had begun to paint portraits, she embraced her new genre with great intensity. This work is arguably one of the finest examples of one of her main model types, the old peasant women. While living in Worpswede, Modersohn-Becker was able to find models such as this lady in abundance living in the village poorhouses. Here, as in all her portraits featuring these occupants, she captures most prominently the sitter's individual serenity despite their reduced and often troubled circumstances. According to the museum text written by the Detroit Institute of Art, "this image of an old woman is given dignity by the reduction of the subject to simplified large forms and by the harmony of color, to reveal the inner meaning of her subject. Her gesture, traditionally used in depictions of the Annunciation as Mary's acceptance of her role, here can be interpreted as the old woman's recognition of her place in the cycle of human life and is underscored by the flowers in her lap."
Notably, the portrait shows the maturity of Modersohn-Becker's figural style. While she had often incorporated flowers with her female portraits, whereas others often show women in fields of flowers, here the simple cluster of flowers serve to illuminate the sharp contrast to the drabness of the peasant's clothes and even more so, her life. According to art historian Diane Radycki, "there is the coarse peasant and the delicate yellow posy that her rough hands picked and placed so strategically on her lap (or, for that matter, the three little yellow buttons on her jacket that those gross fingers had buttoned)." Basically, it is imperative to remember that there is great beauty and harmony to be gleaned from this woman despite her struggles. Rendered in an expressionist style, the work shows the artist's later approach to color in which she left behind an earlier, at times somber, color palette and rendered instead a more moving portrait in rich contrasts of blue, green, and yellow hues.
Oil on canvas - Collection of The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
Girl in a Red Dress Standing Under a Sunflower
A young girl is the focal point of this Paula Modersohn-Becker painting, interestingly again with her hands acting as a central feature of the work. Hands appear to convey two messages for the artist. The first, that she is interested in all that is "hand made" and in a life dedicated to individual creativity, whilst a secondary suggestion, that hands brought together offer a spiritual aspect is also made. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, the girl wears a red dress and white and pink bonnet. Her hands are clasped in front of her slightly above her waist and she glances out to her left as though to something beyond the confines of the canvas. Positioned in a field of pink and red flowers, directly behind the girl there is a large sunflower and two white birch trees. We now witness a style, which although inspired by the linage of Post-Impressionism, is steadily becoming the artist's own.
Painting young girls, by contrast to her older ladies, was another popular subject for Modersohn-Becker. She was interested in the progression of girlhood through to womanhood and in the different challenges encountered along the way. Whilst many of her portraits of girls were somber in nature, featuring the peasant children living in the community of Worpswede, here she took a more direct and personal subject, that of her stepdaughter, Elsbeth. The work serves as a fine example of the expressionistic style, which Modersohn-Becker had near perfected towards the end of her tragically short career. Here in this painting the artist includes, as described by art historian Diane Radycki, "...a bright palette, thick brushwork, and simplified shapes" and also notably a figure with, "...no room to move, despite being outside: she is right up to the picture plane, with no deep space behind her."
Perhaps at this point in her life, having returned to Worpswede to live with her husband and Elsbeth, Modersohn-Becker finally feels more of a closeness to her step-daughter as signified by being the child being brought so far forward on the picture plane. While having been in her stepdaughter's life since she was two-years-old, it seems that only here many years later that she first acknowledges the deep love that she feels for this child. The painting may also have been made simultaneously in homage to her cousin, for according to Radycki, "the artist had been but a year older than her stepdaughter when she saw her eleven-year-old cousin suffocate in a sand pit." Of this event, Modernsohn-Becker said later of her cousin, "You are my legacy" and indeed that all art that she was to produce during her career was in someway made in dedication and homage to this lost child.
Oil on canvas - Private collection
Self-Portrait with Two Flowers
In this half-length self-portrait, Paula Modersohn-Becker depicts herself in a blue dress and white collar. Her right hand rests on her stomach, which is distinctly swollen in pregnancy. In her left hand she holds up two pink flowers directly towards the viewer. One of the flowers is bright and illuminated whilst the other is darkened and in shadow. Similar to the artist early split birch tree, the stem splits to suggest multiple possible meanings.
According to art historian Diane Radycki, "she holds up two flowers that she thrusts right at the viewer [...]. She is insisting on the creative woman's twin gifts: her genius and her biology." It is indeed a possibility that the artist seeks to comment on the tension that a woman feels between following a chosen career and devotion to motherhood. Equally, however, the two flowers could signify mother and child. The image successfully makes visible the feeling of carrying another being inside, that of at once being separate and connected at the same time.
The shadow upon one of the flowers could indeed be a sad foresight towards Modersohn-Becker's impending death, whilst her child (the other flower bathed in light) would live on as her legacy along with her paintings. Profound and groundbreaking, overall the work occupies an important place in the history of art. Painted whilst actually pregnant (having already made her 'fantasy' pregnancy image the previous year), this artwork is the first self-portrait to feature a woman in this condition, real and un-idealized. Interestingly, although unsure of impending motherhood when she first found out that she was pregnant, during this the final trimester, Modersohn-Becker no longer feared the demands a child would bring to her career, and instead fully embraced the experience. She became especially creative and tirelessly productive during the final phase of her career.
Oil on canvas - Collection of The Museum of Modern Art and Neue Galerie, New York, New York