Paula Modersohn-Becker (February 8, 1876 – November 21, 1907) was a German painter and one of the most important representatives of early expressionism. In a brief career, cut short by an embolism at the age of 31, she created a number of groundbreaking images of great intensity. She is becoming recognized as the first female painter to paint female nudes. Using bold forays into subject matter and chromatic color choices, she and fellow-artists Picasso and Matisse introduced the world to modernism at the start of the twentieth century.
Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) was a German painter and one of the most important representatives of early expressionism. In a brief career, cut short by an embolism at the age of 31, she created a number of groundbreaking images of great intensity.
Paula Becker was born and grew up in Dresden-Friedrichstadt. She was the third child of seven children in her family. Her father, the son of a Russian university professor, was employed with the German railway. Her mother was from an aristocratic family, and her parents provided their children a cultured and intellectual household environment.
In 1888 the family moved from Dresden to Bremen. While visiting an aunt in London, Becker received her first instruction in drawing. In 1893 she was introduced to works of the artists' circle of Worpswede; Otto Modersohn, Fritz Mackensen, Fritz Overbeck and Heinrich Vogeler presented their paintings in Bremen's Art Museum, Kunsthalle Bremen. In addition to her teacher's training in Bremen in 1893-1895, Becker received private instruction in painting. In 1896 she participated in a course for painting and drawing sponsored by the"Verein der Berliner Künstlerinnen" (Union of Berlin Female Artists) which offered art studies to women.
Becker's friend Clara Westhoff left Bremen in early 1899 to study in Paris. By December of that year, Becker followed her there, and in 1900 she studied at the Académie Colarossi in the Latin Quarter.
In April 1900 the great Centennial Exhibition was held in Paris. On this occasion Fritz Overbeck and his wife, along with Otto Modersohn, arrived in June. Modersohn's ailing wife Helen had been left in Worpswede and died during his trip to Paris. With this news Modersohn and the Overbecks rushed back to Germany.
In 1901 Paula married Otto Modersohn and became stepmother to Otto's two-year-old daughter, Elsbeth Modersohn, the child from his first marriage. She functioned in that capacity for two years, then relocated to Paris again in 1903. She and Modersohn lived mostly apart from that time forward until 1907, when she returned to Germany full-time, apparently in hopes of conceiving her own child.
The marriage with Modersohn remained unconsummated until their final year together. By 1906, Becker (now known as Paula Modersohn-Becker) has reversed her previous desire to avoid having children, and began an affair with a well-known Parisian "ladies man". However, by early 1907 she returned to her husband, became pregnant, and in November she delivered a daughter, Mathilde.
After the pregnancy she complained of severe leg pain, so the physician ordered bed rest. After 18 days he told her to get up and begin moving, but apparently an embolism had formed in a leg, and encouraged by her movement, was sufficient to break off and cause her death within hours of her rising.
In 1898, at age 22, Becker immersed herself in the artistic community of Worpswede, where artists such asFritz Mackensen (1866-1953) and Heinrich Vogeler (1872-1942) had retreated to protest against the domination of the art academy and life in the big city. She studied under Mackensen, painting from the nearby farmers, and the northern German landscape. At this time she began close friendships with the sculptor Clara Westhoff (1875-1954) and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).
Until the years when Paula Becker began the practice, women painters had not widely used nude females as subjects for their work.
Paula Becker was trained in the methods of realism and naturalism, along with a recognizable simplicity of form. She was able to achieve a distinct texture to her work by scratching into the wet paint. She later abandoned those techniques to move into Fauvism. She is becoming recognized as having influenced at least one of Picasso's paintings.
In 1907 Paula Modersohn-Becker returned to her husband in Worpswede, despite period correspondence that indicate her desire for independence. She wrote in detail about her love for her husband but also of her need to delay motherhood in her pursuit of artistic freedom. She continued to express ambivalence regarding motherhood as she was concerned about her ability to paint while raising a child; her diary entries indicate that she had planned on achieving a painting career by age thirty, then having children. So, when her daughter Mathilde (Tillie) Modersohn was born on November 2, 1907, Paula and Otto were joyous. The joy became tragedy nineteen days later, when Paula suddenly died. She had complained of pain in her legs after the delivery, and was advised to remain in bed. When the physician returned on 21 November, he advised her to rise. She walked a few steps, then sat down, called for the infant to be placed in her arms, complained of leg pain, and died, saying only "What a pity." She was buried in the Worpswede Cemetery where her grave is preserved.