“I feel that the time is soon coming when I no longer have to be ashamed and remain silent, but when I feel with pride that I am a painter.”
Paula Modersohn-Becker made landscapes, still lifes, and domestic scenes, but it was portraits of women and girls that most fully occupied her artistic imagination. She portrayed mothers nuzzling and nursing infants, solitary farm girls surveying the land, and old women enthroned on rocking chairs. She also made self-portraits, in countless variations. With her subdued, earthy palette and surfaces of thick impasto, Modersohn-Becker avoided conventional beauty, leading one museum director, an early champion of her work, to comment, “She lacks nearly everything that is needed to win hearts and flatter the casual glance.”
But it was not only in her handling of paint that Modersohn-Becker subverted certain norms; she worked professionally as an artist at a time when women were expected to be wives and mothers first, and she painted other women in a way that upended traditional standards of femininity. Discarding any hint of idealization, her female figures, whose sturdy bodies are often posed awkwardly, make no overtures to the viewer. Their dark, saucer-like eyes seem to shield rather than reveal their inner lives.
Modersohn-Becker came of age at the end of the 19th century, a time when German artists were moving away from academic conventions—in particular, a highly finished style of painting and subjects such as history or genre scenes—and toward the looser brushwork and focus on capturing the shifting qualities of light characteristic of French Impressionism. She began painting in 1893, when she was 16. After studying in London and Berlin, she settled in an artists’ colony in the northern German town of Worpswede, seeking to live closer to nature and escape industrialization.
Like many of the colony’s artists (including one of its founders, and her future husband, the painter Otto Modersohn), she found inspiration in the surrounding landscape. Four intaglio prints in MoMA’s collection, from around 1899–1902, suggest what especially caught her attention: women in nature. In one etching, she depicts a blind woman walking in the woods. Hunched over, with a peaceful, blank face, she advances slowly, her hands held out before her. Wizened and expressive, her hands are the most articulated detail of the print. One of Modersohn-Becker’s companions in Worpswede, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote that his friend painted "the things and objects of Worpswede…which nobody else had seen or could paint in that way.”
In 1900, Modersohn-Becker left for the first of four trips to Paris, each of which would impact her ambitions and artistic trajectory. Especially impressed by the luminous palette and expressive brushwork of the leading members of the French avant-garde, including Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh, she began to incorporate more color into her painting, distinguishing her as one of the first German artists to work in a style that would soon be known as Expressionism.
Modersohn-Becker also pushed her depictions of women and her self-portraits in new directions in these years, and by 1906 she had begun painting life-sized nudes, measuring herself against the leading figures of the Parisian art world at the time, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. While she rejected their overtly erotized depictions, like them, she sought to reinvent the representation of women in Western art history. Her most radical step was in taking herself as a subject, likely becoming the first modern woman artist to have painted nude self-portraits, and to have painted herself pregnant. In Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand (1907), she presents herself looking out at the viewer with a steady, serene gaze, one hand resting protectively on her belly and the other holding two flowers, symbols of fertility. Her blue blouse and the pink and green tones on her face and neck exemplify her brightened and newly experimental palette. This would be one of her last paintings—later that year, she died of complications just 20 days after giving birth to a daughter. She was 31 years old.
In the 15 short years when she was able to pursue her art, Modersohn-Becker completed more than 700 paintings and 1,000 drawings and prints. Despite selling only a few paintings during her lifetime, her distinct style, perseverance in overcoming considerable barriers to women artists, and daring subject matter made her a leading artist of her generation. Undeterred by the meager recognition she received, she felt she had made a major leap forward with her large-scale nudes and self-portraits, writing that through this body of work, “I will make something of myself.”
Hillary Reder, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2018
Note: opening quote is from a letter written by the artist to her mother on July 6, 1902, from Worpswede; as transcribed in Paula Modersohn-Becker: The Letters and Journals (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 282.
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.