Paula Modersohn-Becker

Date/place of birth

February 8, 1876, Friedrichstadt, Dresden

Day/place of death

November 20, 1907, Worpswede

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Sitzendes Kind an einer Birke: Kind mit Frucht (Child Sitting next to Birch Tree: Child with Fruit). Verso: Bauernmädchen am Hang vor wolkigem Himmel (Peasant Girl on Hillside against Cloudy Sky)
Paula Modersohn-Becker - Sitzendes Kind an einer Birke: Kind mit Frucht (Child Sitting next to Birch Tree: Child with Fruit). Verso: Bauernmädchen am Hang vor wolkigem Himmel (Peasant Girl on Hillside against Cloudy Sky)

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Paula Modersohn-Becker biography

Paula Modersohn-Becker is considered the patron saint of German art history. She was one of the first, few women to become an artist of distinction who did not simply copy the male masters of her time, but who went her own way and became a pioneer of Expressionism.

Paula Modersohn-Becker – An engineer’s daughter with a pronounced interest in music

Paula Modersohn-Becker was born on 8 February 1876 in Dresden-Friedrichstadt, the third of seven children of the German railway engineer Carl Woldemar Becker, and related to the Thuringian noble family of Bültzingslöwen through her mother Mathilde. It was her art-loving mother who awakened and encouraged Paula’s musical inclinations – she received piano lessons like her sisters, but did not share the family’s love for Richard Wagner, a composer she perceived as too un-German. At the age of ten, she was involved in an accident whilst playing in a sandpit, an accident in which her cousin Cora Parizot, of the same age, lost her life. This experience affected the artist so deeply that she addressed it years later in a letter to Rainer Maria Rilke. Her uncle Oskar Becker carried out an assignation attempt on the Prussian King Wilhelm which in turn led to her father facing reprisals and necessitated the move to the Hanseatic city of Bremen in search of employment.

Reluctant training as a teacher; private painting lessons

In Bremen, Paula Modersohn-Becker came across numerous artist personalities who belonged to her mother’s circle of friends. Her own artistic career was worse off however as her father wished for her to become a teacher. Despite this, she took various private art lessons, partly thanks to the patronage of her uncle in London who sent her to St. John’s Wood Art School. During her studies at the Janson teaching seminars, her father permitted her to take private painting tuition with Bernard Wiegandt, where Paula Modersohn-Becker was able to work for the first time from the living model. In recognition of her good exam results, she was allowed to accompany her uncle Wulf von Bültzingslöwen to Norway – during this trip she studied the work of the Norwegian Symbolist Edvard Munch. Paula Becker first came into contact with the work of her future husband Otto Modersohn when the Worpswede artists’ circle exhibited their paintings at the Kunsthalle Bremen in the spring of 1893; in her diary she expressly praised Otto’s colour scheme and the rendering of the heathland atmosphere. 

Studies at the Women’s Academy; trips to Paris and Worpswede

As a woman, Paula Modersohn-Becker could not attend art school, but her obvious talent induced her mother and uncle to finance further private tuition, and she went on to study in Berlin under Jacob Alberts, Curt Stoeving, Martin Körte and Ludwig Dettmann, among others. Although she also attempted painting nudes and landscapes, she preferred portraits at this time. She was particularly impressed by the painter Jeanna Bauck, whose painting class she attended at the Women’s Academy of the Union of Berlin Female Artists from 1897. At Bauck’s suggestion, she visited Paris several times, and attended the Académie Colarossi, Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts there. Time and again, however, her path led her to Worpswede were she received lessons under Fritz Mackensen and found many like-minded people, not least her husband Otto Modersohn. For Paula, the artists’ colony in Teufelsmoor was both a gateway to artistic freedom, and a prison, from which she was hardly able to escape. 

Patronage from Otto Modersohn; Paris as a place of longing

In Otto Modersohn, Paula Modersohn-Becker found an understanding husband who recognised her artistic talent early and encouraged it as best he could. At the same time, he offered her the necessary financial security that enabled her to avoid the time-consuming task of earning a living. Although Paula tried to be a good wife for Otto and a caring mother to her stepdaughter Elsbeth in the early years of their marriage, she felt lonely. She was repeatedly drawn to Paris, a city which became her ultimate place of yearning. While her husband Otto Modersohn adhered to the painting traditions of the 19th century and continued these with great skill, Paula became increasingly oriented to the French masters of Modernism, to Parisian painters such as Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. With her husband’s financial support, the artist lived for several months in Paris where she maintained close contact with Rainer Maria Rilke and his wife Clara Westhoff. 

The search for artistic freedom and independence 

Paula Modersohn-Becker’s wish to separate from her husband and permanently settle in Paris was abandoned when her friend and patron Bernhard Hoetger made it clear to her that she could not earn a living without Otto’s financial support. She therefore finally reconciled with Otto and returned to Worpswede. There, she fulfilled a long-cherished wish: she became pregnant. Children played a significant role in the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker; her stepdaughter Elsbeth had modelled several times for her, and both clothed and unclothed children were a frequent subject. She also painted herself as a pregnant woman even before she was pregnant – she is thus the first female artist of whom a full-body self-nude has survived. However, it is part of the tragedy of her life that, of all things, the final fulfilment of her desire for children also signified her fall: complications arose during the birth of her daughter Mathilde which finally led to an embolism after several weeks of bed rest. 

Paula Modersohn-Becker died on 20 November 1907 in Worpswede at the age of 31. Even though she only sold three of her works during her lifetime, she belongs today to the most expensive and sought-after female artists in the world.

© Kunsthaus Lempertz

Paula Modersohn-Becker Prices

Paula Modersohn-BeckerSitzendes Kind an einer Birke: Kind mit Frucht (Child Sitting next to Birch Tree: Child with Fruit). Verso: Bauernmädchen am Hang vor wolkigem Himmel (Peasant Girl on Hillside against Cloudy Sky)€390.400
Paula Modersohn-BeckerKinder zwischen Birkenstämmen€337.500
Paula Modersohn-BeckerSelbstbildnis, Halbfigur nach links, eine Schale und ein Glas haltend€297.500
Paula Modersohn-BeckerSitzendes Mädchen mit schwarzem Hut und Blume in der rechten Hand€261.800
Paula Modersohn-BeckerJunge mit Ziege€136.850
Paula Modersohn-BeckerDie sieben Raben I€130.900

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