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Paula Modersohn-Becker

Paula Modersohn-Becker German artist

German artist
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro German artist
A.K.A. Paula Modersohn- Becker, Paula Becker, Paula Modersohn Becker, Paula Becker-Modersohn, Paula Modershohn-Becker, Paula Moderson-Becker, Paula Modersohn-Becker (pseudonym), Paula (pseudonym) Modersohn-Becker
Countries Germany
Occupations Painter
Type Arts
Gender female
Birth 8 February 1876 (Dresden, Dresden Directorate District, Saxony, Germany)
Death 20 November 1907 (Worpswede, Osterholz, Lower Saxony, Germany)
Father: Carl Woldemar Becker
Spouse: Otto Modersohn
Children: Tille Modersohn
Education Académie Julian
Paula Modersohn-Becker
The details

Paula Modersohn-Becker (8 February 1876 – 20 November 1907) was a German painter and one of the most important representatives of early expressionism. Her brief career was cut short when she died from embolism at the age of 31. She is becoming recognized as the first female painter to paint nude self-portraits. She was an important member of the artistic movement of modernism at the start of the twentieth century.


Dresden-Friedrichstadt: After Paula's birth, the Becker family moved into a house in "Friedrichstraße 29" (today "Friedrichstraße 46")
Bremen: Becker's parental home 1888–1899

Becker was born and grew up in Dresden-Friedrichstadt. She was the third of seven children in her family. Her father Carl Woldemar Becker (January 31, 1841 Odessa – November 30, 1901, Bremen), the son of a Russian university professor of French, was employed as an engineer with the German railway. Her mother, Mathilde (November 3, 1852 Lübeck – January 22, 1926 Bremen) was from an aristocratic family "von Bültzingslöwen", and her parents provided their children a cultured and intellectual household environment.

Clara Rilke Westhoff, Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1905

In 1888 the family moved from Dresden to Bremen. While visiting a maternal aunt in London, Becker received her first instruction in drawing at St John's Wood Art School. 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 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 to women.

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.

Otto Modersohn Sleeping, Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906

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. In a letter to Rainer Maria Rilke written from Worpswede on February 17,1906, signs of a troubled marriage are emerge, "And now, I don't even know how I should sign my name, I'm not Modersohn and I'm not Paula Becker anymore either"." Less than a month later she writes from Paris to her husband, "try to get used to the possibility of the thought that our lives can go separate ways".

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 her leg, and with her mobility, broke off and then caused her death within hours.


Reclining Mother and Child

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 style and life in the big city. She studied under Mackensen, painting 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 Becker began the practice, women painters had not widely used nude females as subjects for their work. The only notable exceptions to this dearth are works by Artemisia Gentileschi, three centuries earlier; for example, art historians assume that Gentileschi used her own body as the model for her work Susannah and the Elders. Her work on the female nude is unconventional and expresses an ambivalence to both her subject matter and the method of its representation.

Becker was trained in the methods of realism and naturalism, along with a recognizable simplicity of form. She was able to achieve a distinct texture to her work by scratching into the wet paint. She later abandoned those techniques to move into Fauvism. She is becoming recognized as having influenced at least one of Picasso's paintings.

Trips to Paris

Rainer Maria Rilke, Paula Modersohn-Becker (1906)

Until 1907 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-ImpressionismPost-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.

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.

Final year and death

Paula with Mathilde, November 1907 (days before Paula's death)

In 1907 Paula Modersohn-Becker returned to her husband in Worpswede, despite period correspondence that indicated 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.

Monument on the grave of Paula Modersohn-Becker in Worpswede cemetery, by sculptor Bernhard Hoetger (1907)

Painting technique

Modersohn-Becker employed the same technique throughout her short career as a painter. She worked in tempera and oil with a limited range of pigments such as zinc white, cadmium yellow, viridian, and synthetic ultramarine.


By 1899 Clara Westhoff had made a bust of her friend 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.

The art and architecture of the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum was denounced by local Nazis in 1935 but Ludwig Roselius ignored this until Hitler denounced the Böttcherstrase in September 1936 and Roselius contemplated suicide but Barbara Götte intervened on his behalf with Hitler.

Mathilde Modersohn (1907–1998) founded the Paula Modersohn-Becker Foundation (Paula Modersohn-Becker-Stiftung) in 1978.

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, 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 age 16 to the early years of her marriage, and are full of youthful optimism and energy.

On the 8th of February 2018 Becker's birthday was celebrated in a Google Doodle.

Modersohn-Becker was included in the 2018 exhibit Women in Paris 1850-1900.

Paula Becker House

Modersohn-Becker's house 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. 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 Becker's mother's friendships in the art world, Paula grew to be part of the community. Apart from her teacher training in Bremen in 1893–1895, Paula took private instruction in painting. It was not well known that the young Becker had lived here for ten years; in 2003 Heinz and Betty Thies bought the then run-down 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.

In popular culture

The life of Paula Modersohn-Becker is fictionalized in Sue Hubbard's 2012 novel, Girl in White.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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