Until 12th February 2023, the Royal Academy of Arts is exhibiting the work of seven female artists who achieved success between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. These women (Paula Modersohn-Becker, Käthe Kollwitz, Gabriele Münter, Marianne Werefkin, Ottilie Reylaender, Erma Bossi and Jacoba van Heemskerck) worked during a time the role of women in society was under fierce public debate. Women’s suffrage movements were prevalent in many countries, but other communities, particularly in Germany, believed women should dedicate themselves to the three Ks: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church).
The exhibition, Making Modernism, reveals women were excluded from art colleges, resulting in the establishment of “Ladies’ Academies” by the Association of Women Artists. Rural artists’ colonies also supported female artists, introducing them to Post-Impressionism and Expressionism. The seven artists included in the RA’s exhibition never joined a particular art movement, allowing them the freedom to develop their own style and create or break the rules, which many of their male counterparts could not do without upsetting or causing a stir among critics.
Set up by theme rather than artist, the exhibition explores the types of work the seven female artists produced: portraits, children, landscapes, still-life etc. Whilst this is useful in some respects, it is harder to appreciate each artist individually. So, this blog post is the first in a series that looks at each woman’s life and successes, giving them the full attention they deserve.
Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907)
“The intensity with which a subject is grasped – still lives, portraits, or pictures from one’s imagination – is the beauty of art.”
Recognised as the first known female painter to paint nude self-portraits and the first woman to have a museum devoted exclusively to her art (the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum), Paula Modersohn-Becker was a German Expressionist painter. During her relatively short life, she produced 700 paintings and over 1000 drawings.
Born Minna Hermine Paula Becker on 8th February 1876 in Dresden-Friedrichstadt, Modersohn-Becker was the third child of the university professor Carl Woldemar Becker (1841–1901) and Mathilde (1852–1926) of the aristocratic von Bültzingslöwen family. Her parents raised Paula and her six siblings in a cultured and intellectual environment, evidently having high hopes for their future. Unfortunately, the children’s prospects were limited after their uncle, Oskar Becker (1839-68), shot King Wilhelm of Prussia in the neck in a failed assassination attempt in 1861.
In 1888, the Becker family moved to Bremen, where they interacted with local artistic circles. Encouraged by this, Modersohn-Becker started learning to draw, saying, “At first, I shall only be drawing, beginning with very simple arabesques and other designs. If I progress, then I shall make charcoal sketches after Greek plaster casts … If I advanced further, I shall begin drawing and painting from live models.” After attending private art lessons in Bremen, Modersohn-Becker’s parents sent her to relatives in England in 1892 to help her learn English. While there, Modersohn-Becker attended St John’s Wood Art School in London.
Returning to Bremen in 1893, Modersohn-Becker and two sisters attended a teacher’s seminary per their father’s wishes. During her spare time, Modersohn-Becker received painting lessons from Bernhard Wiegandt, a local artist, and set up an art studio at her parents’ house. Although Modersohn-Becker passed her teaching course, it was evident that she had no intention of continuing down that career path. Instead, she travelled to Berlin in 1896 to participate in a six-week art course run by the Verein der Berliner Künstlerinnen.
After completing the art course, Modersohn-Becker chose to remain in Berlin, where she enrolled in the first-ever painting class held at the Women’s Academy. She eventually returned to Bremen in 1898 but convinced her parents to allow her to attend another art course, this time at the artists’ colony in Worpswede. The colony consisted of artists who rejected traditional styles of art taught at academies. Under Fritz Mackensen’s (1866-1953) tutelage, Modersohn-Becker produced landscapes, focusing on colours, tones and textures. Unfortunately, Modersohn-Becker often received criticism from her tutor, who complained she let herself “into the foreground too much” rather than copying directly from nature.
Modersohn-Becker exhibited two paintings with the Worpswede group in the Bremen Kunsthalle in 1899, but they were removed after the hysterical critic, Arthur Fitger, protested the inclusion of female artists. At the time, Modersohn-Becker believed Fitger hated her paintings, which did not completely conform with the colony’s romanticized traditions of landscape painting. After this incident, Modersohn-Becker chose to move to Paris, where attitudes towards art were less restricted than in Bremen.
Modersohn-Becker arrived in Paris in 1900 and began studying at the Académie Colarossi. She frequently visited museums, where she felt inspired by the colourful paintings of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and members of Les Nabis, such as Pierre Bonnard and Félix Vallotton, who bridged the gap between Impressionism and Modernism. She noted these artists used simplistic or symbolic forms rather than true-to-life figures and natural colours. “Strive for the greatest simplicity by means of the most intimate observation.”
During Modersohn-Becker’s first year in Paris, the 1900 Paris Exposition celebrated the achievements of the past century by exhibiting the achievements and cultures of fifty-six countries. People travelled far and wide to attend the world fair, including artists from the Worpswede group. Modersohn-Becker knew one man, Otto Modersohn (1865-1943), from his occasional visits to the colony. Although he was married, the pair became close friends and met in Paris. Unfortunately, Modersohn’s trip to the city was cut short after receiving news that his wife, Helene, had passed away.
Despite her parent’s opposition, Modersohn-Becker followed Modersohn back to Worpswede, where they married in May 1901 after a short courtship. Modersohn-Becker wished to continue working as an artist but had to combine this with her responsibilities as a wife and a stepmother to Modersohn’s young daughter, Elsbeth. During the first couple of years of marriage, Modersohn-Becker managed to set up a studio on a nearby farm, where she completed several paintings of children. Some of these artworks, such as Girl in the Garden Next to a Glass Sphere (1901-2), may be portraits of her stepdaughter.
In 1903, Modersohn-Becker and her husband visited Paris for a couple of months. Modersohn-Becker used this time to visit art galleries and other artists, such as Auguste Rodin, Bonnard and Vallotton, who were starting to embrace Japanese styles. Modersohn-Becker returned to Paris alone in 1905, acknowledging that her husband did not find modern art appealing. She began taking drawing lessons at the Julian Academy but soon realised her style clashed with what the school taught.
After returning to Worpswede, Modersohn-Becker began to focus on still life, producing almost 50 scenes in two years. Some of her earlier paintings in this genre differ from her usual style. It is as though she attempted to copy the methods taught at the schools in Paris. Modersohn-Becker quickly rejected the realistic appearance in preference of bold colours and simplistic shapes. She also continued to paint portraits in this manner.
For most of 1906, Modersohn-Becker and her husband lived apart. Modersohn-Becker rented a studio on Avenue du Maine, Paris, near her friend Clara Westhoff, who was married to the writer Rainer Maria Rilke. Modersohn-Becker and Westhoff met at the colony in Worpswede and remained close friends. Modersohn-Becker was also good friends with Rilke, often writing to him from Worpswede. In February 1906, she wrote to Rilke about the difficulties she faced as a married artist. “And now, I don’t even know how I should sign my name, I’m not Modersohn and I’m not Paula Becker anymore either.”
Letters from Modersohn-Becker to her husband suggested she considered ending their marriage, asking him to “try to get used to the possibility of the thought that our lives can go separate ways”. During her separation from her husband, Modersohn-Becker accomplished some of her most distinctive works, including nude self-portraits, which were an atypical and shocking theme for a female artist. Critics label Modersohn-Becker’s nudes as unconventional because they express ambivalence toward the subject.
While in France, Modersohn-Becker declared in a letter to her sister, “I am becoming somebody – I’m living the most intensively happy period of my life.” Yet, she chose to return to her husband despite her yearning for independence. Modersohn-Becker’s journals and correspondence reveal she never stopped loving Modersohn but feared settling down and becoming a mother. She wanted to have a successful career by the age of 30 before thinking about having children.
Modersohn-Becker returned to Worpswede at the beginning of 1907. Now age 30, she felt able to settle down and start a family. During her pregnancy, Modersohn-Becker painted another nude self-portrait, making her the first known woman to paint herself nude, the first woman to paint herself pregnant, and the first woman to paint herself nude and pregnant. As far as art historians know, Modersohn-Becker never exhibited these paintings during her lifetime, perhaps out of fear of causing a scandal.
On 2nd November 1907, Modersohn-Becker gave birth to a girl, Mathilde (Tillie). Although overjoyed with her daughter, Modersohn-Becker felt unwell after the delivery, complaining of pains in her legs. The doctor prescribed a period of bed rest, as was the norm at that time. The doctor returned on 20th November to suggest she try to rise from her bed. Modersohn-Becker only managed to take a few steps before sitting down due to excruciating pain in her legs. She died shortly after asking for her daughter.
Today, physicians suspect Modersohn-Becker suffered from deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is common in women told to rest for a long time after giving birth. At the time, doctors did not understand the risk of blood clots due to long periods of inactivity. When Modersohn-Becker rose from her bed for the first time, she loosened a clot in her leg, which caused her death when it obstructed a vital organ.
After Modersohn-Becker’s funeral at the Worpswede Cemetery, Rilke wrote the poem Requiem for a Friend in her memory. “Oh you were far beyond all fame; were almost invisible; had withdrawn your beauty, softly, as one would lower a brightly coloured flag on the grey morning after a holiday. You had just one desire: a year’s long work — which was never finished; was somehow never finished.” Friends and artists held exhibitions of Modersohn-Becker’s work, which brought her the fame she never achieved while alive. Collectors started to buy her paintings, and ten years after her death held a large exhibition at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover and published a collection of her letters and journals.
In 1927, art patron Ludwig Roselius (1874-1943) opened the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum in Bremen, the first museum devoted to a female artist. It is situated in a purpose-built Brick Expressionist building, which became a listed building in 1973. The museum contains paintings from all periods of Modersohn-Becker’s life. In 1935, local Nazi members attacked some of the artwork and museum, and the following year, Adolf Hitler denounced Modersohn-Becker’s paintings as degenerate, stating they were “A revolting mixture of colours, of idiotic figures, of sick children, degenerates, the dregs of humanity.”
Seventy of Modersohn-Becker’s paintings were removed from museums and/or destroyed by the Nazi party. Fortunately, Modersohn-Becker was a prolific artist, so only a 10th of her artwork disappeared during this period. At least 50 paintings belonged to her daughter, Mathilde Modersohn, who donated them to the Paula Modersohn-Becker-Stiftung (Paula Modersohn-Becker Foundation), founded in 1978.
In 2007, Modersohn-Becker’s parent’s house in Bremen opened as a private museum and art gallery. The project, run by Heinz and Betty Thies, began in 2003 when they purchased and restored the run-down house. The museum opened in time to honour the 100th anniversary of Modersohn-Becker’s death.
Visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition may not have heard of Paula Modersohn-Becker, but she has inspired several artists and is remembered in her home country. One biographer suggests Modersohn-Becker’s artwork inspired a couple of paintings by Pablo Picasso. Whether or not this is true, she certainly held enough influence to become one of the women on the Deutsche Bundespost‘s series of Women in German History postage stamps. Her life is also immortalised in the 2016 German bio-pic film, Paula, and fictionalised in Sue Hubbard’s 2012 novel, Girl in White.
Francesca Wade, writing for the Royal Academy magazine, describes Modersohn-Becker as “harnessing her emotional turmoil to create forceful self-portraits and a series of remarkable paintings of women – pregnant, breastfeeding, ageing.” Nowadays, having seen the likes of Lucian Freud and Paula Rego, Modersohn-Becker’s paintings are not as shocking as they were at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, the uniqueness of Modersohn-Becker’s work gets lost in a sea of Modern, Post-Modern and contemporary art, but in her lifetime, she was something new and daring. Modersohn-Becker paved the way for female artists to paint what and how they liked, whether naked self-portraits, pregnancy, breastfeeding women, landscapes or portraits. Regardless of personal aesthetic preferences, Paula Modersohn-Becker is an artist that needs to be included in galleries and exhibitions because she is a turning point in the history of art in a misogynistic world.
Paula Modersohn-Becker is one of seven artists featured in Making Modenism at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The exhibition is open until 12th February 2023 and tickets cost up to £19. Concessions are available, including free entry for Friends of the RA.
To be continued…
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