(February 8, 1876 – November 21, 1907) was a German painter
and one of the most important representatives of early
expressionism. In a brief career, cut short by an embolism
at the age of 31, she created a number of groundbreaking
images of great intensity. She is becoming recognized as the
first female painter to paint female nudes. Using bold
forays into subject matter and chromatic color choices, she
and fellow-artists Picasso and Matisse introduced the world
to modernism at the start of the twentieth century.
Paula Becker was born and grew up in Dresden-Friedrichstadt.
She was the third child of seven children in her family. Her
father, the son of a Russian university professor, was
employed with the German railway. Her mother was from an
aristocratic family, and her parents provided their children
a cultured and intellectual household environment.
In 1888 the family moved from Dresden to Bremen. While
visiting an aunt in London, Becker received her first
instruction in drawing. In 1893 she was introduced to works
of the artists' circle of Worpswede; Otto Modersohn, Fritz
Mackensen, Fritz Overbeck and Heinrich Vogeler presented
their paintings in Bremen's Art Museum, Kunsthalle Bremen.
In addition to her teacher's training in Bremen in
1893-1895, Becker received private instruction in painting.
In 1896 she participated in a course for painting and
drawing sponsored by the "Verein der Berliner Künstlerinnen"
(Union of Berlin Female Artists) which offered art studies
Becker's friend Clara Westhoff left Bremen in early 1899 to
study in Paris. By December of that year, Becker followed
her there, and in 1900 she studied at the Académie Colarossi
in the Latin Quarter.
In April 1900 the great Centennial Exhibition was held in
Paris. On this occasion Fritz Overbeck and his wife, along
with Otto Modersohn, arrived in June. Modersohn's ailing
wife Helen had been left in Worpswede and died during his
trip to Paris. With this news Modersohn and the Overbecks
rushed back to Germany.
In 1901 Paula married Otto Modersohn and became
stepmother to Otto's two-year-old daughter, Elsbeth
Modersohn, the child from his first marriage. She functioned
in that capacity for two years, then relocated to Paris
again in 1903. She and Modersohn lived mostly apart from
that time forward until 1907, when she returned to Germany
full-time, apparently in hopes of conceiving her own child.
The marriage with Modersohn remained unconsummated until
their final year together. By 1906, Becker (now known as
Paula Modersohn-Becker) has reversed her previous desire to
avoid having children, and began an affair with a well-known
Parisian "ladies man". However, by early 1907 she returned
to her husband, became pregnant, and in November she
delivered a daughter, Mathilde.
After the pregnancy she complained of severe leg pain, so
the physician ordered bed rest. After 18 days he told her to
get up and begin moving, but apparently an embolism had
formed in a leg, and encouraged by her movement, was
sufficient to break off and cause her death within hours of
In 1898, at age 22, Becker immersed herself in the artistic
community of Worpswede, where artists such as Fritz
Mackensen (1866-1953) and Heinrich Vogeler (1872-1942) had
retreated to protest against the domination of the art
academy and life in the big city. She studied under
Mackensen, painting from the nearby farmers, and the
northern German landscape. At this time she began close
friendships with the sculptor Clara Westhoff (1875-1954) and
the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).
Until the years when Paula Becker began the practice,
women painters had not widely used nude females as subjects
for their work.
Paula Becker was trained in the methods of realism and
naturalism, and she abandoned those techniques to move into
Fauvism. She is becoming recognized as having influenced at
least one of Picasso's paintings.
Trips to Paris
Until 1907 Paula Modersohn-Becker made another six extended
trips to Paris for artistic purposes, sometimes living
separately from her husband, Otto. During one of her stays
in Paris she took courses at the École des Beaux-Arts. She
visited contemporary exhibitions often, and was particularly
intrigued with the work of Paul Cézanne. Other post
impressionists were especially influential, including
Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Fauvism influences also
appear in her works such as Poorhouse Woman with a Glass
Bottle. The influence of French painter Jean-François Millet
is noted in such pieces as her 1900 Peat Cutters.
During her last trip to Paris in 1906 she produced a
series of paintings about which she felt very great
excitement and satisfaction. During this period of painting,
she produced her initial nude self-portraits, unprecedented
for female artists, as well as portraits of her friends,
including Rainer Maria Rilke and Werner Sombart. Art
historians concur that this period was the strongest and
most compelling time of her art production.
Clara Rilke Westhoff,
Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1905
In 1907 Paula Modersohn-Becker returned to her husband in
Worpswede, despite period correspondence that indicate her
desire for independence. She wrote in detail about her love
for her husband but also of her need to delay motherhood in
her pursuit of artistic freedom. She continued to express
ambivalence regarding motherhood as she was concerned about
her ability to paint while raising a child; her diary
entries indicate that she had planned on achieving a
painting career by age thirty, then having children. So,
when her daughter Mathilde (Tillie) Modersohn was born on
November 2, 1907, Paula and Otto were joyous. The joy became
tragedy nineteen days later, when Paula suddenly died. She
had complained of pain in her legs after the delivery, and
was advised to remain in bed. When the physician returned on
21 November, he advised her to rise. She walked a few steps,
then sat down, called for the infant to be placed in her
arms, complained of leg pain, and died, saying only "What a
pity." She was buried in the Worpswede Cemetery where her
grave is preserved.
Monument on the grave of Paula Modersohn-Becker in
Worpswede cemetery, by sculptor Bernhard Hoetger (1907)
By 1899 Clara Westhoff had made a bust of her friend Paula
Becker, saying that it was a symbol of their friendship and
shared passion for art.
In 1908 Rainer Maria Rilke wrote the renowned poem
"Requiem for a Friend" in memory of Paula Modersohn-Becker.
Mathilde Modersohn (1907-1998) founded the Paula
Modersohn-Becker Foundation (Paula Modersohn-Becker-Stiftung)
In 1988 a stamp with the portrait of Paula Modersohn-Becker
was issued in the series Women in German history by the
German post-office authority Deutsche Bundespost.
Paula Modersohn-Becker was
not widely known at the time of her untimely death (age 31),
and would have dropped into obscurity but for her voluminous
writing. She maintained a diary, and corresponded regularly
with friends in her artistic circle. Her letters were
collected and widely published (in German) during the 1920s, and it was
largely through them that her legacy was maintained. In the
1970s, US art historian Diane Radycki first translated them
into English (they have also been translated by others since
then). Two-thirds of the correspondence occurred from her
sixteenth year to the early years of her marriage, and are
full of youthful optimism and energy.
Paula Becker House
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Modersohn-Becker's in Bremen, where she spent much of her
life, opened in October 2007 as a private art museum and
gallery. Her family moved from Dresden to Bremen in 1888 and
lived in this house. Paula Becker lived here until 1899,
when she was 23 years old, and set up her first studio in
this house. There was an active artist community in Bremen
and via Backer's mother's friendships in the art world,
Paula grew to be part of the community. Apart from her
teacher's training in Bremen in 1893-1895, Paula took
private instruction in painting. It was not well known
that the young Paula Becker had lived here for ten years; in
2003 Heinz and Betty Thies bought the then-rundown house,
and had it restored in time for the 100th anniversary of the
artist's death. At that time (November 2007) it was turned
into a public museum.