Paula Modersohn-Becker was one of the most exciting and tragic German Expressionist painters.
In her short life, she created over 700 Expressionist paintings and well over 1,000 drawings. These artworks, primarily focusing on portraiture, revolutionized modern art.
Today, we explore some of the most famous Paula Modersohn Becker paintings and the artist's personal life.
Paula Modersohn-Becker (b. 8 February 1876) grew up in Dresden, Germany. As one of seven children, they enjoyed a prosperous and comfortable upbringing.
Becker's mother (Mathilde) hailed from an aristocratic background, while her father (Carl) worked as an engineer with the German railway.
In 1861 however, disaster struck the family. Carl's brother, Oskar Becker, attempted the assassination of King Wilhelm of Prussia. While the King wasn't severely injured, the family suffered social and professional ostracization after this date.
The Beckers moved to Bremen in 1888 and socialized among intellectuals and avant-garde Russian artists. Paula learned to draw around this time, developing a life-long passion for art.
In 1892, Paula Modersohn Becker traveled to England. She lived with an aunt (learning English) and also studied drawing at St John's Wood Art School. After returning to Bremen, Becker trained to become a teacher at her parent's request.
At the same time, however, she received private painting lessons. Becker's father even allowed her to set up a dedicated studio within their family home. During this period, Becker painted self-portraits and images of her siblings.
Becoming more and more independent, Becker traveled to Berlin in 1896. She completed a six-week art course at the Verein der Berliner Künstlerinnen before enrolling at the Women's Academy of Art.
After briefly returning to her family in Bremen, Becker moved to the northern German town of Worpswede. She joined the Worpswede art movement and artists colony, managed by Fritz Mackensen and Heinrich Vogeler.
Alongside artists such as Otto Modersohn and Fritz Overbeck, Becker created numerous landscapes and scenes of peasant life. These paintings included works such as Peasant Woman Nursing her Baby (1898) and Old Woman Sitting with her Hands in her Lap (1899).
This artistic movement went against traditional Germanic rules of painting. Instead, they prioritized Expressionist artworks featuring vivid colors and simplified compositions. During this time, Becker also befriended the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the sculptor Clara Westhoff.
Becker's artistic style quickly developed, and she soon abandoned the Worpswede movement's romanticized style. Indeed, in a journal entry, Becker complained it wasn't "broad enough" and was too "genre-like" for her tastes.
Becker often used oil paint on canvas, which was common during the late nineteenth century.
From 1899 onwards, Becker's artistic aspirations shifted towards Paris. As the artistic epicenter of Europe, it represented creative freedom and innovation. So Becker moved to Paris in 1900, studying at the Académie Colarossi in the Latin Quarter.
She also visited the capital's prestigious museums, particularly appreciating the work of Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. After this eye-opening experience, Becker's art shifted towards flat areas of color (inspired by Gauguin) and more expressive brushstrokes depicting simplified forms (inspired by Cézanne).
A fellow Worpswede artist, Otto Modersohn, joined Becker in Paris. Unfortunately, his wife, Helene, died back in Worpswede during the trip. After Modersohn returned to Germany (closely followed by Becker), the two painters commenced a relationship.
Becker and Modersohn married in 1901. Modersohn already had a daughter (Elsbeth), and Becker combined her new roles as a stepmother, housewife, and painter.
Nonetheless, she established a small studio nearby, where she painted almost daily. Artworks from this period often featured children, notably Head of a Fair Girl (1901) and Elsbeth in the Brunjes Garden (1902).
However, finding it difficult to concentrate on her art, Becker returned to Paris (alongside Otto) in 1903. She visited the artist Auguste Rodin, studied new trends in Japonisme, and rejuvenated her artistic passion.
Becker returned to Paris in 1905, this time without Otto. After this date, the two artists drifted apart (both creatively and romantically). After that, Becker focused on still lifes. Indeed, she created almost fifty still-life works from 1905 to 1907.
During this time, Becker also developed her portraiture, mainly focusing on depictions of mothers and children. Reclining Mother and Child (1906) is one of her best-known creations.
In 1906, Becker wrote to her husband asking him to "try to get used to" the thought that their lives could go "separate ways". Despite her family's intense concern, Becker returned to Paris (alone) to pursue her art.
Works from this period included Becker's famous nude self-portraits, such as Self Portrait with Amber Necklace Detail. These works are candid and brave. They unconventionally represent a real woman with an intense personal life, painted in a thick impasto style.
Becker loved her newfound freedom to focus on her art. She wrote to her sister (Milly Rohland-Becker) that it was the most "intensively happy period" of her entire life.
Paula Modersohn Becker was the first woman to create a nude self-portrait. She also painted Self Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Anniversary (1906), the first nude and pregnant self-portrait.
This painting depicted Becker, pregnant with Otto Modersohn's child. Despite their separation in previous years, the couple stayed in contact and maintained a relationship. However, Becker was unsure about motherhood, concerned it would impact her ability to paint.
Nonetheless, the couple was delighted at the pregnancy. On 2 November 1907, their daughter, Mathilde Modersohn, arrived. Becker complained of severe leg pain soon after delivery, however. On the advice of her doctor, she stayed in bed.
Rising on 20 November, she asked for the baby. Then, complaining again of leg pain (with her daughter in her arms), Becker passed away. Her last words were, "what a pity".
Becker died from deep venous thrombosis (DBT) in her leg, a common side-effect of keeping women in bed for long periods after delivery.
Modersohn arranged for Becker's burial in Worpswede Cemetery, outside their artist's colony home.
Paula Modersohn Becker is one of the most famous female artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her pioneering Expressionist paintings revolutionized portraiture and views of femininity.
If you love these innovative creations, explore our extensive collection of her art. You'll find fine art reproductions to adorn your walls and improve your space.