I have a bit of an obsession with woman artist Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907). In fact, the following post on Becker was one of the first I wrote for Nasty Women Writers back in 2017.

Paula Modersohn-Becker: Women and Ambition, German Woman Artist (1876-1907)

I first encountered Becker’s story in the poem “Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff” written by Adrienne Rich from her book, The Dream of a Common Language. Clearly Becker’s  story captured Rich as it has so many women artists and writers. The story of a woman fighting for her art, her ambition, and her passion in a world where that is an excruciating thing to do. And yet Paula Becker did it.

Read Rich’s Poem on Becker in Nasty Woman Writers post on Adrienne Rich:

Adrienne Rich: A Woman Writer Whose Voice Echoes in My Body, American (1929-2012)

Paula Modersohn-Becker is credited with being the first woman to paint herself nude, the first woman to paint herself pregnant. She died of an embolism at age 31 only days after giving birth to her first child saying, “What a pity.” Her story haunts us with what-ifs?

My daughter moved to Bremen, Germany in 2017. Visiting her there I stumbled upon the  museum dedicated solely to the art of Paula Modersohn-Becker. It occurred to me that I may be close to the famous Worpswede artist colony Becker had been a part of. On return visits to my daughter, we traveled to Worpswede and continued to go to special exhibits of Becker’s work in the Boettcherstrasse Museum in Bremen.

The following two posts detail these visits:

Ich Bin Ich (I am Me) Paula Modersohn-Becker: The Self-Portraits

Degenerate Art: Update on Woman Artist Paula Modersohn-Becker

Worpswede is a land of moors, often called “Teufelsmoor,” devil’s moor, where in 1864 there were farms and peasants harvesting turf, the fuel of the time. This work is very difficult and the people who lived and worked there were very poor and uneducated.

Otto Modersohn, Herbst im Moor 1895 (Autumn in the Moor)

At that time, art student Fritz Mackensen visited Worpswede and subsequently dropped out of the Düsseldorf Academy of Art to live and paint there, inviting some of his friends to join him. Hans am Ende, Otto Modersohn, and Fritz Overbeck agreed and established the Artist colony there. They were moved to paint the simplicity of the moors and the people there, to capture the light on the birch trees and the water running through the canals. They sought to return art to the common folk and depose it from its pedestal of high class and snobbery.

Worpswede is now a tourist destination with many art galleries and buildings preserved for historic purposes from Becker’s time. The small book I bought about Worpswede, Worpswede, A Portrait, when I visited has this to say:

“It was though a female artist, the “woman painter” Paula Modersohn-Becker, who ensured Worpswede’s place in the history of art and thus secured the survival of the Artists’ Colony”(Gutmann 8).

Becker would probably be pleased to know she is being given such credit.

New York City and the Neue Galerie

Gustave Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907

Visiting my daughter in New York City in November 2023, we went together to the Neue Galerie to see Gustave Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1, 1907.” This is a portrait by Klimt that was stolen by the Third Reich and subsequently claimed by Austria as a national symbol. They removed the true title to hide the Jewish identity of the woman in the painting and titled it “Woman in Gold.” It hung in the Galerie Belvedere in Vienna  until 2006 when it was returned to the family to whom it belonged after a long-fought legal battle. This story is detailed in the movie, Woman in Gold.

It is absolutely worth the visit to the Neue Galerie to see the piece in person. There is detail and color from the gold leaf that is not captured in any of the photographs.

In the bookstore of the Neue Galerie I was delighted to find the novel, Girl in White written by Sue Hubbard with the famous self-portrait of Paula Modersohn-Becker on the cover: “Portrait of Myself on My Sixth Wedding Anniversary,”1906.

Clearly Becker’s story and her art also caught the interest and imagination of British woman writer Sue Hubbard who explains:

“I discovered Paula in the mid 90s when my first poetry collection, Everything Begins with the Skin, was published. I was invited to give a reading in Bremen and visited Worpswede, the village where she lived in an artists’ community on the north German moors. I was taken by the landscape and the directness of the paintings and began to find out about her. There were many parallels in our lives. As a young woman in my 20s, I had lived in a remote part of Somerset in the west of England. At the same age, Paula went to live on the north German moors among artists to discover a form of freedom”(https://3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2012/09/girl-in-white-an-interview-with-sue-hubbard.html).

“Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand,” Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1907.  One of the last paintings the artist made, note her hand over her pregnant belly. Photo taken by author at the New York, MoMA.

Girl in White

Hubbard’s novel opens in 1933 from the point of view of Mathilde Modersohn, Becker’s daughter, who knew her for only a few days. She is now 26 years old and that is also how long Becker has been dead.

Mathilde has returned to Worpswede to try to connect with her mother. She is a violinist, an artist as well. She has fallen in love with a married Jewish man from Vienna, a violinist older than her who has fled the country because of the rise of the Third Reich and antisemitism. She is also pregnant with his child.

“How hurt father would be if he knew that I’d come to Worpswede. I think he’d feel betrayed, as though he hadn’t done enough. Of course he did his best, but what did he know about bringing up a small child? This place belongs to Paula and he never talked of her. That part of his life is a closed chapter. As far as the world is concerned he’s Otto Modersohn, the famous artist. No one remembers her. No one remembers Paula Modersohn-Becker”(15).

The book alternates between sections narrated by Mathilde and sections narrated by Becker.

I appreciate how Hubbard kept the novel focused on Becker’s work, persistently revealing how much she wanted to work and how tirelessly she fought for her art.

Becker develops the identity of an artist at a young age. Her parents are supportive but want her to be able to support herself financially. They fully expect her to move on to the role of teacher, governess, or wife and mother. But Becker has no intention of doing that. After her first visit to Worpswede at age sixteen, she is smitten with the place and the artist colony and eventually moves there.

“These Worpswede painters were pushing back the boundaries of what it meant to be an artist, rejecting conventional academicism for something more authentic. She was particularly struck by the gritty realism of Otto Modersohn. The sepia and russet tones with which he suggested the low-lying fields and dykes around Worpswede. The sense of desolation moved her. She could smell the damp peat, hear the cries of the circling rooks, and feel the leaden clouds gathering over the moors. Yet his paintings were more than mere copies of nature. They were attempts to translate what it felt like to be part of the landscape. Beside Herr Modersohn’s paintings those of the young Henrich Vogeler, with their fairies and medieval knights, appeared stylized and contrived. They reminded her of the English Pre-Raphaelites, the Holman Hunts and works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that she’d seen in London. Vogeler’s paintings were charming, but they had little to do with the harsh realities of modern life that she had seen in parts of London, or the poorer parts of Bremen. And that’s what she wanted to paint. The world in all its dirty poignancy”(51).

“Old Peasant Woman,” 1905. Paula Modersohn-Becker

Once Becker is out of her family home, the settings move between Worpswede and Paris— Paula’s two loves. Diametric opposites. Yet she needs both. She craves the action and busyness of Paris and the peaceful nature and long vast views of the moors of Worpswede. The descriptions of Paris at the time are colorful and evocative of the period and what was happening in the art world. In Paris, Becker consumes the art in the museums and in contemporary exhibitions and takes classes. She is very poor. Hubbard does a nice job in portraying this and how much of a struggle it is for Becker to pursue her ambition on such limited means. Having barely enough to eat or keep her apartment warm, she perseveres.

Hubbard gives careful attention to Becker’s interest in painting the poor farmers around Worpswede. It is through Mathilde’s voice that we learn that the German Romantics movement in which the Worpswede colony can be placed was appropriated and distorted under the Nazi regime. How the elevation of the true German of the land evolved into  fascism. It is Mathilde who wonders what her mother would have thought about this. It is she who is watching this play out in her own lifetime. It is Mathilde who is living the future Becker never knew.

Becker wanted to paint the truth. She wanted to paint the people as they were. She also painted herself in this same way.

“Peasant Woman and Birch Tree,” Paula Modersohn-Becker

“She had such respect for these agricultural laborers, for their grit and good humor, despite the terrible conditions that most of them had to endure. Their way of life, whatever its hardships, had something that was being lost in the filth and clamor of the fast-growing cities. She wanted her paintings to connect with the earth the way the ploughing women connected to the soil. Would she be able to find a painterly language that, like these people, was sober and astringent? Be able to describe their relationship to the changing weather and reveal the truth about their hard lives, even if that truth smelt of sweat and pig shit?”(86).

Hubbard does not reveal a feminist consciousness in Becker that embodies the theories and arguments that are common today. That is probably accurate. She does show how she lives them. Becker feels much less free than her male artist contemporaries to go and do whatever she wants when she wants to. This has much to do with her constant state of poverty which is completely because she is a woman. She sells very little art in her lifetime, while male artists of less talent succeed in doing so.

Two Girls in Front of Birch Trees, 1905 Paula Modersohn-Becker

Through her whole life she is dependent on men for money. Later when she marries Otto Modersohn, he is able to support them both with his art. Even if Becker had lived, this would probably have been impossible for her to achieve.

Becker admires the elder Modersohn’s art and he is very supportive of hers, giving her great compliments in the beginning that encourage her to continue. When his wife dies, his interest in Becker begins to change and is eventually made clear. Becker is  lukewarm in reception. She doesn’t want to marry anyone but her father has told her that her time is up. He will no longer support her financially.

She marries Modersohn to keep painting. It is not an unhappy match. He has a young daughter whom Becker enjoys being a mother to and she and Modersohn share a mostly easy camaraderie. But she is bored and desperately restless.

Clara Westhoff

Becker was very close to the sculptor Clara Westhoff. And they were both very close to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Westhoff eventually marries Rilke and they move to Paris where Westhoff becomes an apprentice to Rodin and Rilke becomes his private secretary. Westhoff begins to pull away from Becker in Paris and even when she returns to live at Worpswede, remains increasingly remote.

Hubbard portrays Becker’s excitement over the budding friendship with Westhoff and then the pain she feels when Westhoff pulls away and becomes distant. Becker doesn’t know what changed and feels confused. She misses talking to Westhoff about the intimate details of her life. Hubbard writes that confusion in a way that rings true and hits home. She describes well the anguish that can come with the end of a female friendship, a sort of “ghosting” from Westhoff.

“Sitting alone in the parlor, she was in turmoil. She wrote and rewrote to Clara in her head, crossing out bits and then redrafting. She went to the study and got out a sheet of blue paper. Didn’t Clara realize how selfish she’d been since that time in Berlin when she’d been so short of money that Paula had walked all the way across town to her room by the castle to advance her a loan? Paula had never asked when it would be paid back. She’d simply responded to Clara’s request, given it freely, because Clara was her friend and needed her. Maybe they had different approaches to friendship, but why did love have to be so parsimonious? Rilke was Clara’s husband but did that mean everything had to be given exclusively to him? Shouldn’t love be like the sun and shine on everything? Why couldn’t they live, as they had always planned, as a community? Not just shut up in closed family units?”(200).

Sue Hubbard is a British writer who considers herself first a poet. Her poetry collections include Everything Begins with the Skin, Ghost Station and The Forgetting and Remembering of Air. Other novels include Depth of Field and Rainsongs. She writes about art for many publications and splits her time between London and the countryside. Learn more about Hubbard at suehubbard.com

Rainer Maria Rilke

Hubbard weaves Becker’s relationship with Rilke in and out of the plot in a way that reveals what they mean to one another. She adds a sexual component to their relationship I had not before read of. Rilke is depicted as different from Modersohn, with a wildness that attracts Becker. There is also the problematic nature of his interfering with her relationship with Westhoff, and contributing to the end of their friendship.

It is Rilke who writes the “Requiem for a Friend” about Becker when she dies. It is Adrienne Rich who has Becker question why it is that he is acting like the best friend when, for her, it had always been Westhoff.

Paris Again

Suffocated by their life together and Modersohn’s increasingly overbearing nature, Becker eventually leaves him and flees to Paris. There her work begins to blossom and flourish into what she had always hoped for. She feels herself and her art finally coming into power. But she is once again, starving. She literally cannot make it on her own. She paints her most famous painting. “Portrait of Myself on my Sixth Wedding Anniversary,” in 1906.

“Portrait of Myself on my Sixth Wedding Anniversary,” 1906. Paula Modersohn-Becker

She returns to Modersohn and their life in Worpswede. She is thirty-one and pregnant.

Sue Hubbard is a Nasty Woman Writer and Paula Modersohn-Becker is a Nasty Woman Artist.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2024

Works Cited

Gutmann, Hermann & Jochen Mönch. Worpswede, A Portrait. Bremen, Temmen edition. 2009.

Harris, Elate. “Girl in White: An Interview with Sue Hubbard”. 3 Quarks Daily. September 10, 2012. https://3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2012/09/girl-in-white-an-interview-with-sue-hubbard.html

Hubbard, Sue. Girl in White. London, Pushkin Press. 2012.