Paula Modersohn-Becker (Source)

Paula Modersohn-Becker (8 February 1876 – 20 November 1907)[1] was a German painter and one of the most important representatives of early expressionism.

Her career was cut short when she died from postpartum embolism at the age of 31. She is recognized as the first known female painter to paint nude self-portraits.[2] She was an important member of the early 20th century modernism movement.


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 (1841–1901), the son of a Russian university professor of French, was employed as an engineer with the German railway. Her mother, Mathilde (1852–1926), 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 1895 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 during 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 17 February 1906, signs of a troubled marriage 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”.”[1] 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”.[1]

By 1906, Becker (now known as Paula Modersohn-Becker) had 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 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, a thrombus had formed in her leg, and with her mobility, broke off and then caused her death within hours.[citation needed]


Reclining Mother and Child (1906)

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. Becker’s work on the female nude is unconventional and expresses an ambivalence to both her subject matter and the method of its representation.[3]

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.[4] She later abandoned those techniques to move into Fauvism. There is evidence to suggest that a number of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s self-portraits were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Rossetti, including Self-portrait with a bowl and a glass (c.1904; Sander Collection), Self-portrait nude with amber necklace (1906; Private collection), and Self-portrait on my sixth wedding anniversary (1906; Museen Böttcherstrasse, Paula Modersohn- Becker Museum, Bremen).[5] She may also have influenced one or more of Picasso’s paintings, as Diane Radycki posits in her 2013 monograph on the artist.[6]

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-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.

In 1906, Modersohn-Becker left Worpswede, as well as her husband, Otto, to pursue an artistic career in Paris. In a journal entry dated 24 February 1906, a sanguine Modersohn-Becker wrote, “Now I have left Otto Modersohn and am standing between my old life and my new life. I wonder what the new one will be like. And I wonder what will become of me in my new life? Now whatever must be, will be.” Despite her sister’s and mother’s general disapproval of Paula’s decision to leave Otto for Paris, her relocation there proved to be quite prosperous for her.

It was during this time frame that she accomplished her most intensive work. From this body of work she produced a series of paintings about which she felt 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. Modersohn-Becker was incredibly optimistic about her artistic progress during her final trip to Paris. In May 1906, she wrote a letter to her elder sister, Milly Rohland-Becker, in which she stated, “I am becoming somebody – I’m living the most intensively happy period of my life.”

Final year and death

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

Self-Portrait, Nude with Amber Necklace Half-Length II

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 2 November 1907, Paula and Otto were joyous.

The joy became tragedy 19 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. Paula’s death was likely due to deep venous thrombosis (DVT), a complication of pregnancy that is relatively common when women are set to bed for a long time after delivery, as was customary practice at that time.[7]

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.[8] She worked in tempera and oil with a limited range of pigments such as zinc white, cadmium yellow, viridian, and synthetic ultramarine.[9][citation needed]


By 1899 Clara Westhoff had made a bust of Modersohn-Becker, saying that it was a symbol of their friendship and shared passion for art.[citation needed] In 1908 Rainer Maria Rilke wrote the renowned poem “Requiem for a Friend” in Modersohn-Becker’s memory.[citation needed]

In 1927 the businessman Ludwig Roselius opened in Bremen the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, designed by Bernhard Hoetger. Local Nazis denounced its art and architecture in 1935,[10] but Roselius ignored this until Hitler denounced his entire Böttcherstraße in September 1936. After Roselius’s secretary Barbara Goette intervened on his behalf with Hitler, the Nazi leader allowed the street’s buildings to remain as a monument of “degenerate art”.[11]

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

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,[12] 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 it is full of youthful optimism and energy.

On 8 February 2018, Becker’s birthday was celebrated in a Google Doodle.[13]

Modersohn-Becker was included in the 2018 exhibit Women in Paris 1850-1900.[14]

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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17]

In popular culture

The life of Paula Modersohn-Becker is fictionalized in Sue Hubbard‘s 2012 novel, Girl in White.[18] She was also the subject of a 2016 German biographical film called Paula. (Source)

Leave a Reply