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Modern Portraits

Explore how early modern painters pushed the boundaries of traditional portraiture.


Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand

Paula Modersohn-Becker
(German, 1876–1907)

1907. Oil on canvas, 21 3/4 × 9 3/4" (55.2 × 24.8 cm)

In this emblematic self-portrait, a pregnant Paula Modersohn–Becker stares out at the viewer with a steady gaze. She holds two flowers, symbols of fertility, in her left hand. Her right hand rests on her swelling belly.

Modersohn-Becker began painting in 1893, when she was 16 years old. In her short career, and despite considerable barriers to women artists, she became a pioneering figure of the 20th-century German avant-garde. She produced landscapes, still lifes, and domestic scenes, but it was portraits of women and girls that most fully occupied her artistic imagination. She also made self-portraits, in countless variations. At a time when women were expected to be wives and mothers first, she worked professionally as an artist, painting herself and other women in a way that upended traditional standards of femininity and avoided idealization and conventional beauty.

By 1906, Modersohn-Becker had begun painting life-sized nudes. She rejected the overtly eroticized nudes of artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse as 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, as in Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand, to have painted herself pregnant. This would be one of her last paintings. The same year she completed it, she died of complications just 20 days after giving birth to a daughter. She was 31 years old.

General agreement on or acceptance of certain practices or attitudes; a widely used and accepted device or technique, as in drama, literature, or visual art.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

A form, sign, or emblem that represents something else, often something immaterial, such as an idea or emotion.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

A representation of inanimate objects, as a painting of a bowl of fruit.

A representation of oneself made by oneself.

The visual portrayal of someone or something.

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.

The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.

French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.