by Anja Weinberger
by Anja Weinberger
For many years I have been fascinated by the paintings of Paula Modersohn-Becker. The touching figures, the earthy colors, the direct gaze that fixes you out of many paintings and the almost ubiquitous connection to nature.
As is so often the case, I was familiar with some of the key words about her life and art. However, it took a visit to Bremen to delve deeper into the fate of this artist
Paula was born in Dresden on February 8, 1876. The Becker couple already had two children and four more were to follow, of whom the brother Hans died at the age of two.
Paula’s parents came from wealthy families who resided in what is now Ukraine and Saxony. The Becker couple, on the other hand, lived with their six children in more modest, yet bourgeois-liberal and cosmopolitan circumstances. Art, music and literature played an important role in the education of the children.
After Paula had spent the first 12 years of her life in Dresden, the family moved to Bremen in 1888, where the father Carl Woldemar Becker took up the position of a municipal building councilor. They lived in an apartment in a large villa with a beautiful garden. Paula’s mother Mathilde was a versatile and extremely communicative woman who quickly established contact with the social life of the Hanseatic city.
The years passed and soon exciting travel plans were made for the young girl. Following these, she crossed over to Great Britain in the early summer of 1892, where her aunt and uncle owned the “Castle Malwood” estate, but also a flat in London. Paula was to learn housekeeping and to become acquainted with the English language. The attentive uncle Charles John Hill noticed her interest in drawing and made lessons at St John’s Wood Art School possible.
But even these interesting lessons could not console Paula over the piercing homesickness that gnawed at her. She therefore broke off her stay in England halfway through the year she had originally planned.
Alte Frau und trauerndes Mädchen bei einem Brunnen, Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1886 – 1907; CC0 Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
From 1893 to 1895, at her parents’ insistence, Paula finally attended the teacher training seminar, as her older sister Milly had done before. At the same time, she was allowed to take drawing lessons with the Bremen artist Bernhardt Wiegant, which interested her much more. Many portraits of her siblings date from these years and also the very first self-portrait (1893), which was to be followed by many more in the course of time. The young painter was even allowed to set up a small studio in her parents’ house. In 1893, Paula saw paintings by the Worpswede circle of artists for the first time in the Bremen Kunsthalle, where Fritz Mackensen, Fritz Overbeck, Otto Modersohn, Hans am Ende and Heinrich Vogeler exhibited their paintings.
Much to the delight of her family, Paula passed her teacher’s examination in 1895 with good marks. Her father, in particular, saw her daughter’s artistic ambitions with one eye smiling and one eye crying. He was determined to give her an education that could support her one day.
In Paula’s diary entries of these years, however, one discovers quite early on her unconditional desire to lead a life as an artist. Already now, a first flare-up of this all-embracing devotion to the great goal became apparent.
The following year, 1896, was probably much more to Paula’s taste, for first she was able to spend a few weeks in Berlin in the spring to take part in a drawing and painting course. And even better, in the autumn she began training as a portrait, landscape and nude painter at the very prestigious “Damenakademie”, also in Berlin.  There she met Jeanna Bauck (1840-1926), who was already an established teacher and painter at the time – a rarity in the male-dominated art world. She, herself well-travelled, probably first awakened in Paula the desire to get to know the Parisian art world and life there.
During her time in Berlin, Paula frequently visited museums. She saw works by Monet, Rodin and Sisley, which made her aware of contemporary trends. But she was also very interested in the painters of the Renaissance  and studied their works thoroughly.
The next year, in 1897, the Becker family took a trip to the village of Worpswede, not far north of Bremen. The artists’ colony that had been there for some time and the unspoilt landscape left a lasting impression on the young woman. And as early as 1898, Paula decided to move there. She was able to take lessons with Fritz Mackensen, which, however, were overshadowed by mutual dissatisfaction after only a short time. Mackensen was probably not a gifted teacher and only saw what his young pupil did not accept from him and what she did differently from what he suggested.
At the turn of the year 1899/1900, the time had finally come. Paula set off for Paris for the first time. There she wanted to meet her friend Clara Westhoff, whom she had only just met in Worpswede. Paula finally studied at the Académie Colarossi on Montparnasse and visited exhibitions and galleries. She saw works by the then still unknown Paul Cezanne and was fascinated by the power of his painting. In addition, the World’s Fair of 1900 began in the spring, which had a great influence on many areas of life at the time. The world was visiting Paris and Paula Becker was delighted to be part of it.
After half a year, her financial means were exhausted and she returned to Worpswede together with Clara. There she met Otto Modersohn, who had just lost his young wife Helene and was now trying to cope with life with their barely two-year-old daughter Elsbeth. From then on, Rainer Maria Rilke and Heinrich Vogeler also belonged to her growing circle of friends.
Otto Modersohn quickly recognised the unusual talent of the young painter Paula Becker. He greatly appreciated their mutual artistic interest and tried to support her to the best of his ability. By marrying him, the 11 years her senior, Paula became independent of parental pressure, but bought this independence with a number of new obligations. She was now a wife, stepmother and housewife. And it is hardly surprising that she perceived married life as far less happy than her husband Otto. Apart from that, Otto Modersohn loved the seclusion in Worpswede, Paula, on the other hand, longed to return to the stimulating life in Paris.
It was only in 1903 that she was able to return there for two months; her friend Clara was also there, by now called Clara Rilke. Paula spent a lot of time in the Louvre, got to know Auguste Rodin, perhaps also Paul Gaugin, and intensified her knowledge of Japanese woodcuts. In some of her paintings, such as the particularly well-known “Child on a Red-Curled Pillow”, art historians think they can see how Paula implemented the inspiration she received from various contemporary artists.
Die Schlachte (die historische Uferpromenade an der Weser) in der Bremer Altstadt; © keialein
After her return to Worpswede in northern Germany, it is noticeable that there are now an above-average number of portraits of children. Paula longed for a baby of her own and spent much time studying and painting mothers with their children. The female body interested her, its possibility of hard labor, maternal care and joy, the burden and danger of childbearing. Her images of children and women are never idealistic or romantically transfigured, certainly they do not represent objects of desire or family idylls.
Paula’s gaze goes deeper, is penetrating and curious. Those depicted radiate great dignity and are taken seriously in the reality of their lives.
Two years later, she travels to the French metropolis again. Although Otto was reluctant to let his wife move, he supported her stay financially, and Paula was even able to persuade him, the contented villager, to pay a short visit to the bustling city.
This third visit to France ripened some new ideas in Paula’s mind. After her return from Paris, she turned more and more to still life and her colouring changed.
Otto Modersohn followed his wife’s artistic development with interest and recorded many of his thoughts in a diary. He praised colour and form and suspected that his wife would not be able to live in the village of Worpswede for long.
And so he has to accept that Paula leaves him in February 1906. She travels to Paris again, this time taking anatomy courses at the École des Beaux-Arts and again visiting numerous exhibitions, including the Salon des Indépendants. By chance she met the sculptor Bernhard Hoetger, who was enthusiastic about her paintings. Paula had not yet had many encounters of this kind in her life, for her art was usually rather rejected or even devalued as naïve.
This thus unusual and unexpected praise allowed astonishing forces to mature in Paula; she would paint over 90 pictures in the following months, among them many nudes, also the well-known “Self-Portrait for the 6th Wedding Anniversary”.
Her interpersonal decisions of these months can be called fickle or at best indecisive. First she asks Otto for a divorce, only to invite him to visit her in Paris shortly afterwards.
Finally, the Modersohn couple spends the winter of 1906/1907 together in the French capital. Also as a couple they visit museums, art shops and exhibitions and then return to Worpswede in March, also together.
Paula is finally expecting a child, continues to work, of course, and towards the end of the pregnancy is quite displeased that the fat belly hinders her at the easel.
Bildnis einer Bäuerin, 1898/99, Paula Modersohn-Becker; CC0 Art Institute Chicago
Now the last, short part of her life begins. On 2 November, she gave birth to Mathilde, a daughter she had longed for for so long; the birth was difficult and doctors prescribed bed rest, which in retrospect was fatal. On 20 November 1907, Paula is finally allowed to get back on her own two feet and an embolism abruptly ends the 31-year-old artist’s life.
After her early death, Paula’s works were shown in several exhibitions. If the artist had sold only five paintings during her lifetime, her work now came to the attention of collectors all over the world. One of them was Ludwig Gerhard Wilhelm Roselius, a coffee merchant and founder of the Bremen company Kaffee Hag. He commissioned Bernhard Hoetger, whom we have already met above, to design a museum building that was to be located in the Böttcherstraße in Bremen, which had been renovated in the Expressionist style.
Twenty years after Paula’s death, the Paula-Modersohn-Becker Museum was opened and was the first museum in the world dedicated to the work of a single woman artist. In Bremen’s Wallanlagen, there is a cast of a bust made by Clara Rilke-Westhoff of her painting friend – the original can be seen a few steps further on in Bremen’s Kunsthalle, where, of course, Paula’s paintings are also on display. So a trip to Bremen is always a trip into Paula’s world.
Meine französischen Kulturgeschichten
– the new book by Anja Weinberger!
With chapters on “French Classical Composers”, Ravel’s Boléro or the Marseillaise. Stories on “Reims and the Rosettes of the Cathedral”, Mont Saint Michel or Brittany.
Learn more about Coco Chanel, Marcel Proust, Vincent van Gogh and many others!
Footnotes and used literature
1 … An der Kunstakademie wurden Frauen (noch) nicht angenommen.
2 … Z. B. Dürer, Cranach, Tizian, da Vinci
Uwe M. Schneede: Paula Modersohn-Becker, München, 2021
(Museum am Modersohn-Haus)
(Moderne Kunst verstehen)