top of page

“I am becoming somebody”

Paula Modersohn-Becker at the Royal Academy of Art

by Margie MacKinnon

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Girl with Child, 1902, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague

Four pioneering female artists of the avant-garde movement in Germany are the focus of a new exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Art. Opening in November 2022, ‘Making Modernism’ features the work of Gabriele Munter, Kathe Kollwitz, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Marianne Werefkin. All four were working in Germany in the early 1900s, exploring themes of identity, representation and belonging. The Modernist movement in art began at the end of the nineteenth century. It was a rejection of traditional approaches to art, notably the realistic depiction of subjects, in favour of experimentation with form and colour, and a leaning towards abstraction. Expressionism, which was an early manifestation of Modernism, originated in Northern Europe and was particularly popular in Germany.

With the exception of Kollwitz, who abandoned painting altogether after 1890, in favour of etching and, later, sculpture and woodcuts, these early Expressionist painters created works of startling simplicity and intense colours, with forms defined by dark outlines. Seeking to convey emotions and the responses that events arouse within a person, Expressionism is characterised by the use of vivid colours, and forms that have been reduced to their purest essence. Munter described her pictures as “moments of life … instantaneous visual experiences, generally noted very rapidly and spontaneously.” Werefkin was influenced by Van Gogh, Gauguin and Edvard Munch, as well as the ideas of the Nabis painters (such as Edouard Vuillard) whose works emphasised the flatness of the painting surface through the use of simplified areas of colour.

Within this group of accomplished artists, Paula Modersohn-Becker stands out, partly because of the subject matter of her works and her unapologetic unidealised portraits of girls and women, and partly because she managed to develop her artistic vision and create a lasting legacy, despite dying at the age of only 31.

Gabriele Münter, Still-life on the Tram (After Shopping), c. 1912. Gabriele Münter- und Johannes Eichner-Stiftung, Munich

Born in Dresden, Germany in 1876, Paula’s art studies began at age 16, when she attended drawing classes at St John’s Wood Art School in London. A few years later, she was admitted to the inaugural painting class at the Women’s Academy in Berlin. On her return to the family home (by then relocated to Bremen), she convinced her parents to allow her to attend another course at the nearby artists’ colony in the northern town of Worpswede. Here, she met her future husband Otto Modersohn, and began close friendships with the sculptor Clara Westhoff and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Finding the Worpswede style too refined and restrictive for her developing tastes, and having come into a small endowment from her uncle, in 1900 Paula joined her friend Clara in Paris where the latter had gone to study with Auguste Rodin. Paula enrolled in classes at the Academie Colarossi (where she went on to win first prize) and began the study of anatomy at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which had only just opened its doors to women.

During her brief working life, Paula produced more than 700 paintings and over 1,000 drawings. Starting with landscapes and scenes of local peasant life in Worpswede, she soon concluded that painting people was more satisfying; she also felt that the conventional Worpswede style was too genre-like to render her emotional response to her subjects. She began to use a more restricted colour palette, deploying it in a symbolic rather than naturalistic manner. Paula is known in particular for her portraits of women and children, and for her nude self-portraits. With her Self-portrait on the 6th wedding Anniversary (1906) she became the first painter to have painted herself pregnant and nude. The apparent naivety and simplicity of her style mask a complex and conscious effort to find the essence of things, and, in her portraits of women especially, to reveal their humanity.

Like many female painters, Paula struggled with the conventional expectations of her as a woman, and the difficulty of reconciling marriage and motherhood with her need to express herself as an artist. Her engagement in 1901 to Otto Modersohn came only months after his first wife’s death. The swiftness of this event, combined with the 11-year age gap between the two, concerned Paula’s parents only slightly less than the fact that her cooking skills were inadequate to keep her husband properly fed. They made it a condition of the marriage that she take cooking lessons. Sent to live with an aunt in Berlin to attend a two-month course, Paula described it as a “culinary century” and was filled with longing to return to her studio and paintbrushes.

Paula quickly discovered that marriage did not bring her the happiness she expected. In the first year of her marriage, she “cried a great deal and the tears often come like the great tears of childhood.” She was happier when she was away from Otto, and happier still when on her own in Paris, drinking in the paintings at the Louvre, taking drawing classes and, always, painting. In a letter to her sister, written during her final trip to Paris in May of 1906, Paula wrote, “I am becoming somebody—I’m living the most intensively happy period of my life.” In September of that year, Otto arrived in Paris for a six-month stay, and by the following March Paula had fallen pregnant.

Marianne Werefkin, Twins, 1909. Tempera on paper, 27.5 x 36.5 cm. Fondazione, Marianne Werefkin

Museo Comunale d’Arte Moderna, Ascona

Paula Modersohn-Becker gave birth to her daughter, Mathilde, on November 2, 1907. Following a difficult delivery that lasted for two days, the doctor ordered Paula to stay in bed to recover. When it was finally considered safe for her to get up, eighteen days later, a little party was organised and a group of friends and family gathered to celebrate. After almost three weeks of immobility, Paula rose from the bed, then collapsed on the floor. Within hours she died of an embolism, from lying down too long. The last word she uttered was, “Schade.” A pity. Mathilde lived to be ninety-one. She and her half-sister, Elsbeth, the daughter of Otto Modersohn’s first wife, who also died young, lived together in Bremen where they both worked in health services and welfare.

Praising his wife’s work, Otto Modersohn noted Paula’s “strength and intimacy” and described her as “an artist through and through”. Her talent was not universally appreciated, with an early exhibition of her work being subjected to an hysterical attack by the art critic Arthur Fitger who claimed to “feel sick” when confronted with Paula’s pictures. After her death, however, she was quickly taken up by the local art establishment. She was included in numerous group shows in Germany, and many museums and private collectors bought her works. The poet, Rilke, memorialised Paula in his Requiem for a Friend.

The Paula Becker-Modersohn House in Bremen, which opened its doors in 1927, was the first museum in the world devoted to a female artist. Ten years later, the Nazis “purged” German museums of seventy of her paintings. Many were destroyed; some were exhibited as “degenerate art”, described as “a revolting mixture of colours, of idiotic figures … the dregs of humanity”. Her reputation survived, and in Germany today her work can be spotted on posters, magnets and postcards. Paula’s mother printed a selection of her daughter’s letters which was a huge publishing success, selling 50,000 copies between the two wars.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Mother with Child on her Arm, Nude II, autumn 1906. Museum Ostwall im Dortmunder U. Photo: Jürgen Spiler, Dortmund

In the month before she died, Paula told her mother, “I would so love to go to Paris for a week. Fifty-five Cezannes are on exhibit there now!” And, to her friend Clara, she excitedly wrote, “My mind has been much occupied these days by the thought of Cezanne, of how he is one of the three or four powerful artists who affected me like a thunderstorm, like some great event…. If it were not absolutely necessary for me to be here right now, nothing could keep me away from Paris.” There is something satisfying in knowing that, when the ‘Making Modernism’ exhibition opens at the Royal Academy in London, introducing Modersohn-Becker’s works to a new audience, her ‘mentor’ Paul Cezanne will be the subject of his own show – just a short trip across the river Thames, at the Tate Modern.

‘Making Modernism’ is at the Royal Gallery of Art, London

from 12 November 2022 – 12 February 2023

The main reference for this article was Being Here is Everything, The Life of Paula-Modersohn-Becker by Marie Darrieussecq (2017)

For more on the author


bottom of page