Biography of Paula Modersohn-Becker
Childhood and Education
Paula was the third of seven children born to parents Carl Woldemar Becker and Mathilde Becker. While her parents were strict and often demanding, they were also interested in art and culture; so when Modersohn-Becker showed an early proclivity towards art, her parents encouraged it. According to art historian Diane Radycki, her mother even "...took in a boarder in order to pay for her daughter's art lessons."
Modersohn-Becker's childhood, while generally happy, was marked by a series of losses including the death of her infant brother and both grandfathers. The most traumatic of these losses however, occurred at the age of ten when she witnessed the death of a beloved eleven-year-old cousin while they and a group of other children were playing near a sand pit. Her cousin fell into the pit and suffocated to death. The impact of this was later described by the artist, as, "at the moment of her death, Maid [a sister of the victim] and I hid our heads deep in the sand in order not to see the terrible thing we knew was happening. I said to her then, 'You are my legacy.' And so she has remained." It can be reasoned that later, when she became an artist, it was this tragic event that inspired her many paintings of children.
An introduction to formalized art training began for Modersohn-Becker at the age of sixteen when she went to stay with her aunt and uncle in London where she was able to enroll at St. John's Wood Art School. Although her difficult aunt, homesickness, and the development of severe headaches led to her returning home after only a few months, her interest in art had been firmly established. Once home however, her parents were desperate for her to learn a trade through which she could support herself and therefore insisted she attend a two-year program to train to be a governess. Modersohn-Becker consented but during the course she simultaneously took further art classes and integrated with local artists.
After completing her governess training, Modersohn-Becker convinced her father to send her to art school in Berlin. While he only initially consented to a two-month stay, she ended up studying at the Drawing and Painting School of the Association of Women Artists for two years. The education she received enabled her to hone her natural skills. It was also importantly at this time, while on breaks from school, that she began to make visits to the artist colony in Worpswede, Bremen, Northern Germany. Greatly impressed by the work of the artists living there, after finishing school in the fall of 1898, she convinced her family to let her move to the colony to study with its' founder Fritz Mackensen. While this would change over the years, she was initially greatly attracted to the colony and to the shared focus there on nature and landscapes. It was also here that she would meet her future husband, colony artist Otto Modersohn, as well as a cohort of friends and fellow artists including Heinrich Vogeler and Clara Westhoff.
Eager for more formal artistic training, in January 1900, Modersohn-Becker left Worpswede to study in Paris. Significantly, this trip would mark the beginning of a lifelong pattern of time spent moving between the two locations, Paris and Worpswede. Once settled in Paris this time around, she enrolled in classes at the Académie Colarossi and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It was here that she focused on life drawing and developed her passion for nude figure studies, already a longstanding interest. Of this time she stated, "afternoons I draw from the nude at the academy. Every half hour a new position. I love doing that."
The summer after her first extended stay in Paris, Modersohn-Becker returned to Worpswede where she met the influential writer Rainer Maria Rilke, and the two built a strong albeit sometimes complicated friendship. It was also during this time that she became engaged to Otto Modersohn. As one of the original founders of the art colony, he was a dedicated landscape painter preferring the plein air approach to painting of the Barbizon School. His wife had died only three months before he proposed to Modersohn-Becker, leaving him at the time a widower with a two-year-old daughter. Whilst Otto would offer her some desperately needed financial security ending the worries of her parents regarding their daughter's future, there is little to support that Modersohn-Becker was otherwise particularly keen to agree to this marriage or to settle down. Shortly after her engagement, for instance, she spent the early months of 1901 in Berlin where she took cooking classes (under the instruction of her father to relinquish her ego and become a good wife) and spent time with Rilke. Still, on May 25 she married Otto, one month after Rilke and her best friend Clara Westhoff were also married.
Modersohn-Becker did not take easily to marriage, which, how hard to believe, was said to remain unconsummated for several years. Her struggles are supported in a diary entry in which she wrote, "I have cried a lot in my first year of marriage...I feel as lonely as I did in my childhood....It is my experience that marriage does not make one happier. It destroys the illusion that has been the essence of one's previous existence, that there existed something like a soul-mate." She also recorded in diary entries that when at home, she was happiest in Otto's absence, for only then she could live off pears and rice pudding, didn't have to set the table, could read over her food, and basically felt much freer.
Perhaps in part to escape her marital disappointments, whilst simultaneously to advance her career and to pursue a feverish need for independence, as a newlywed Modersohn-Becker continued her solo trips to Paris (6 in total) during which time she painted, studied master works in museums, visited salons, and became increasingly engaged in modern art and artists such as Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. It was also during this period, as a result of her friendship with Rilke, that Modersohn-Becker would have the opportunity to interact with great artists. Rilke had worked as a secretary for Auguste Rodin as he had intended to write a monograph on his work. Indeed, he did complete various extended essays and deliver lectures on Rodin. Rilke, thus introduced her to Auguste Rodin. Modersohn-Becker also met Picasso because of Rilke's connections, but she herself also knew many practicing artists as she often took courses at the École des Beaux-Arts and made sure to visit all of the current exhibitions when she was in town.
While staying in Paris, Modersohn-Becker wrote to Otto stating that she missed him as well as Worpswede, and asked her husband to send money. Although he consented and continued to support his wife financially, Otto was grieved by her absences of which he stated, "her feeling for family and home is weak. I do hope it will grow." In truth, it was clear at this moment that her desire to be an artist came first above all other interests and responsibilities.
The paintings created during the last years of Modersohn-Becker's short career show a deep embrace of modern art and all the influence and knowledge that she had gleaned from time spent in Paris. She moved entirely away from the classic landscape and nature themes championed by the colony artists of Worpswede and focused heavily on still life and portraiture. More than fifty of her later portraits were notably of nude figures.
The instability of the blossoming artist's family situation did not improve the longer she was married. Despite often returning to Worpswede to paint and be with her husband and stepdaughter, Modersohn-Becker constantly longed for Paris and to immerse herself wholly in the artist's life. The urge finally completely overtook her in the middle of the night in February 1906 when she fled Worpswede for Paris without telling anyone.
Modersohn-Becker thrived during this time alone in her beloved city of which she stated, "I am becoming something - I am living the most intensely happy time of my life." After setting up a studio she enrolled in more classes, spent time with friends including Rilke, and painted her first nude self-portrait. No one, it seems was able to entice her to return to Worpswede including her mother to whom she wrote, "now I am beginning a new life. Don't interfere, just let me be." At this moment in her career, Modersohn was working prolifically, producing 80 significant pictures in just one year.
Her husband, unhappy at his wife's actions, but without the ability to convince her to return home, would sometimes visit. These interludes, however, appear to have been largely unwelcome as Modersohn-Becker did consult a divorce lawyer while in Paris. She never went further along this path however, perhaps in no small part because she remained fully financially dependent on Otto. Interestingly, whilst Otto had initially been a great supporter of his ambitious wife's work, by this point he had grown weary of her great need for freedom and spitefully wrote of her paintings made at the time, they are "ugly, bizarre, wooden ... mouths like wounds, faces like cretins. A revolting mixture of colours, of idiotic figures, of sick children, degenerates, the dregs of humanity"".
However, still in love and in an effort to save their marriage Otto moved to Paris in October 1906 to be with Modersohn-Becker. This would have meant a dramatic change in their relationship and yet the need for money led the conflicted artist to accept. According to Radycki, "with Otto in Paris, she could expect a consummated marriage and the possibility of motherhood, as well as money to pay the studio rent, buy good painting supplies, and hire models...."
During this time in Paris, Modersohn-Becker's career began to take off. Her work was included with other Worpswede artists in a Bremen exhibition, which then traveled to Berlin. This event marked the second time that her work was publicly shown, and she received reviews full of great promise.
Unfortunately however, a lengthy career was not possible for Modersohn-Becker. In March of 1907 she became pregnant and returned with Otto to Worpswede. It appears that the artist struggled to come to terms with the demands that impending motherhood could have on her career. According to Radycki, Modersohn-Becker, "...had long struggled with her desire for motherhood, and just as long had she chosen not to act upon that desire." In one letter she wrote while pregnant she stated, "I have worked so little" and in another to her sister she begged, "never write me another postcard with the words 'diapers' or 'blessed event' on it. You know full well that I am a soul who prefers that other people not know that she will be busying herself with diapers."
Still, near the end of her last trimester, Modersohn-Becker seemed to become artistically inspired and wrote, "I am painting again and would that I had an invisible cloak, I'd push on ever so longer and farther." At the time, she painted Self-Portrait with Two Flowers (1907). While personally symbolic in that it revealed to the artist herself that motherhood would not end her desire or her ability to make art.
While pregnant, Modersohn-Becker still longed for her life in France. Radycki describes how she wanted to see an exhibit of Paul Cézanne's paintings that were then on view in Paris in October 1907 and wrote to her friend Clara, "if it were not absolutely necessary for me to be here, I would have to be in Paris." That was not to be however, as on November 2 Modersohn-Becker gave birth to a baby girl she named Mathilde after her mother. According to Radycki, while the labor was difficult, when her friend Clara visited the new mother she recalled how she seemed happy and described how, "the smiling artist kept saying of her healthy newborn, 'You should see her in the nude!' Mother and child [...equals] artist and nude model."
Modersohn-Becker began to experience strong pains in her legs only a week after labor and was ordered to two weeks of bed rest. Perhaps in a foreshadowing of her own end, Radycki writes on how, "in the last letter she wrote, the artist declared, 'I'm not afraid of anything, everything will go well - only death, now there is the ghost that frightens me, that is the one real misfortune." Modersohn-Becker, at the young age of thirty-one, succumbed to complications of pregnancy eighteen days after giving birth. She had been instructed by her physician to remain in bed, likely causing a fatal postpartum embolism.
The Legacy of Paula Modersohn-Becker
Paula Modersohn-Becker was the first woman artist to paint herself nude and furthermore, the first artist to paint herself nude while pregnant. Her repeated themes of moving self-portraits and portraits of women and children are well integrated within the foundations for the Feminist Art movement. She has had great influence on the work of contemporary female artists dedicated to similar subject matter, including most notably Frida Kahlo, Tracey Emin, and Cindy Sherman. Another contemporary artist, Jenny Holzer, wrote specifically of the artist's influence on her practice, stating, "I became aware of Modersohn-Becker when I was young, and loved her work for its subject, its gravity and its success. I was encouraged and frightened by her story. Not many women were serious artists, as well as mothers. Not many artists treated motherhood without sentimentality, or without showing a mother and infant in service of religion. I suspect I had Modersohn-Becker in the back of my mind when I began the Mother and Child text for the Venice Biennale."
In describing her legacy, art historian Diane Radycki asserts, "today, post-Guerrilla Girls and post-modernism, Modersohn-Becker's risk can escape us, used as we are to frank sexual images. Her female bodies defy the idealized and eroticized nude, and at the same time destabilize Self-Portrait, Children, and Mother and Child as minor genres in the hierarch of painting categories. Modersohn-Becker shifted paradigms that, over course of the twentieth century, continued to change with the person and the practice of the woman artist."
In yet another "first", Modersohn-Becker was also the first female artist to have a museum constructed and dedicated entirely to her work. The museum was commissioned by forward thinking arts patron, Ludwig Roselius who invited innovative sculptor and architect, Bernhard Hoetger to design the building. Hoetger had been a personal friend of Modersohn-Becker, and the museum opened in 1927. It came under threat by Hiltler and his degenerate art program but luckily avoided demolition and is still open today - the building itself being one of the key works of Expressionist architecture in Germany - housing the largest collection of paintings by Modersohn-Becker. Although the building survived, Modersohn-Becker was still featured as a rare female artist included in the list of leading modernist artists that Hitler condemned as too dangerous to be viewed by the German public in 1937. Thus whilst not overly recognized in her lifetime, her impact as an important modernist artist and the power of her work was significantly confirmed mere decades after her death by its inclusion in this infamous historical exhibition.
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie
First published on 23 Feb 2020. Updated and modified regularly