What if there were a woman born in the late 1800s with the ambition to paint a way no woman had ever painted before, to paint women in a way women had never been painted before, to bring the female sensibility and perspective to art in a way it had not been seen before?

What if that woman had a lot of ambition and fought her position, status and the misogyny and sexism of the day and actually succeeded in doing everything she had set out to do? If there were such a woman and she did accomplish all that, wouldn’t we have all heard of her and know her as much as we know Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso and Gauguin? The answer is no. Because that woman did exist, did have all those ambitions and did succeed in accomplishing them, but most of us have never heard about her.

If we have heard about her, it is in the context of her being a friend of the famous poet Rainer Maria Rilke, or through the poetry of Adrienne Rich, but not for her accomplishments in art.

We also may not know that she was the first woman to paint herself nude and the first European woman to have a museum dedicated solely to her art.

Her name is Paula Modersohn-Becker. She was a German woman, artist, a feminist and a #NastyWoman in her visual work but also a #NastyWomanWriter in the letters and journals she left behind.

Lee Hoetger in a Garden, 1906 PMB

“With her bold experiments in subject matter, color, modeling, and brushwork, Modersohn-Becker was among the painters, along with Picasso and Matisse, who created modernism in the first years of the twentieth century.”1

I first heard about Paula Modersohn-Becker in the poetry of Adrienne Rich. I published that poem in a previous #NastyWomanWriters post about Rich.

Rich’s poem captivated and moved me. I read it over and over and felt how much it expressed the situation of so many female artists through time. Their lost voices.

I was intrigued by the artist colony in Worpswede, Germany where she met Rainer Maria Rilke and Clara Westoff, her best friend. How she and Clara worked together side by side both possessing ambition, dreams and drive: Westoff ending up slaving in Rodin’s studio in Paris, Modersohn-Becker ending up dead three weeks after giving birth at age 31, Rilke going on to write one of his most famous poems about Becker, her art, her drive, their friendship and her death.

Read Rilke's Poem Here

Rainer Maria Rilke

Requiem For a Friend 1909

I have my dead and I have let them go,

and was amazed to see them so contented,

so at home in being dead, so cheerful,

so unlike their reputation. Only you

return; brush past me, loiter, try to knock

against something, so that the sound reveals

your presence. Oh don’t take from me what I

am slowly learning. I’m sure you have gone astray

if you are moved to homesickness for anything

in this dimension. We transform these Things;

they aren’t real, they are only the reflections

upon the polished surface of our being.

I thought you were much further on. It troubles me

that you should stray back, you, who have achieved

more transformation than any other woman.

That we were frightened when you died…no; rather:

that your stern death broke in upon us, darkly,

wrenching the till-then from the ever-since —

this concerns us: setting it all in order

is the task we have continually before us.

But that you, too, were frightened, and even now

pulse with your fear, where fear can have no meaning;

that you have lost even the smallest fragment

of your eternity, Paula, and have entered

here, where nothing yet exists; that out there,

bewildered for the first time, inattentive,

you didn’t grasp the splendor of the infinite

forces, as on earth you grasped each Thing;

that, from the realm which had already received you,

the gravity of some old discontent

had dragged you back to measurable time.

This often startles me out of dreamless sleep

at night, like a thief climbing in my window.

If I could say it is only out of kindness,

out of your great abundance, that you have come,

because you are so secure, so self-contained,

that you can wander anywhere, like a child,

not frightened of any harm that might await you…

But no: you’re pleading. This penetrates me, to

my very bones, and cuts at me like a saw.

The bitterest rebuke your ghost could bring me,

could scream to me, at night, when I withdraw

into my lungs, into my intestines,

into the last bare chamber of my heart, —

such bitterness would not chill me half so much

as this mute pleading. What is it that you want ?

Tell me, must I travel ? Did you leave

some Thing behind, some place, that cannot bear

your absence ? Must I set out for a country

you never saw, although it was as vividly

near to you as your own senses were ?

I will sail its rivers, search its valleys, inquire

about its oldest customs; I will stand

for hours, talking with with women in their doorways

and watching, while they call their children home.

I will see the way they wrap the land around them

in their ancient work in field and meadow; will ask

to be led before their king; will bribe the priests

to take me to their temple, before the most

powerful of the statues in their keeping,

and to leave me there, shutting the gates behind them.

And only then, when I have learned enough,

I will go to watch the animals, and let

something of their composure slowly glide

into my limbs; will see my own existence

deep in their eyes, which hold me for a while

and let me go, serenely, without judgment.

I will have the gardeners come to me and recite

many flowers, and in the small clay pots

of their melodious names I will bring back

some remnant of the hundred fragrances.

And fruits: I will buy fruits, and in their sweetness

that country’s earth and sky will live, again.

For that is what you understood: ripe fruits.

You set them before the canvas, in white bowls,

and weighed out each one’s heaviness with your colors.

Women too, you saw, were fruits; and children, molded

from inside, into the shapes of their existence.

And at last you saw yourself as a fruit, you stepped

out of your clothes and brought your naked body

before the mirror, you let yourself inside

down to your gaze; which stayed in front, immense,

and didn’t say: I am that; no: this is.

So free of curiosity your gaze

had become, so unpossessive, of such true

poverty, it had no desire even

for your yourself; it wanted nothing: holy.

And that is how I have cherished you — deep inside

the mirror, where you put yourself, far away

from all the world. Why have you come like

this and so denied yourself ? Why do you want

to make me think that in the amber beads

of your self-portrait, there was still

a heaviness that can’t exist

in the serene heaven of paintings ? Why do you show me

an evil omen in the way you stand ?

What makes you read the contours of your body

like the lines engraved inside a palm, so that

I cannot see them now except as fate ?

Come into the candlelight. I’m not afraid

to look the dead in the face. When they return,

they have a right, as much as other Things do,

to pause and refresh themselves within our vision.

Come; and we will be silent for a while.

Look at the rose on the corner of my desk:

isn’t the light around it just as timid

as the light on you ? It too should not be here,

it should have bloomed or faded in the garden,

outside, never involved with me. But now

it lives on in its small porcelain vase:

what meaning does it find in my awareness ?

Don’t be frightened if I understand it now;

it’s rising in me, ah, I’m trying to grasp it,

must grasp it, even if I die of it. Must grasp

that you are here. As a blind man grasps an object,

I feel your fate, although I cannot name it.

Let us lament together that someone pulled you

out of your mirror’s depths. Can you still cry ?

No: I see you can’t. You turned your tears’

strength and pressure into your ripe gaze,

and were transforming every fluid inside you

into a strong reality, which would rise

and circulate, in equilibrium, blindly.

Then, for the last time, chance came in and tore you

back, from the last step forward on your path,

into a world where bodies have their will.

Not all at once: tore just a shred at first;

but when around this shred, day after day,

the objective world expanded, swelled, grew heavy —

you needed your whole self; and so you went

and broke yourself, out of its grip, in pieces,

painfully, because your need was great.

Then, from the night-warm soilbed of your heart

you dug the seeds, still green, from which your death

would sprout: your own, your perfect death, the one

that was your whole life’s perfect consummation.

And swallowed down the kernels of your death,

like all the other ones, swallowed them, and were

startled to find an aftertaste of sweetness

you hadn’t planned on, a sweetness on your lips, you

who inside your senses were so sweet already.

Ah, let us lament. Do you know how hesitantly,

how reluctantly your blood, when you called it back,

returned from its greater circuit?

How confused it was to take up once again

the body’s narrow circulation; how,

full of mistrust and astonishment, it came

flowing into the placenta and suddenly

was exhausted by the long journey home.

You drove it on, you pushed it forward, you dragged it

up to the hearth, as one would drag a terrified

animal to the sacrificial altar;

and wanted it, after all that, to be happy.

Finally, you forced it: it was happy,

it ran up and surrendered. And you thought,

because you had grown used to other measures,

that this would be for just a little while.

But now you were in time, and time is long.

And times goes on, and time grows large, and time

is like a relapse after a long illness.

How short your life seems, if you now compare it

with those empty hours you passed in silence, bending

the abundant strengths of your abundant future

out of their course, into the new child-seed

that once again was fate. A painful task:

a task beyond all strength. But you performed it

day after day, you dragged yourself in front of it;

you pulled the lovely weft out of the loom

and wove your threads into a different pattern.

And still had courage enough for celebration.

When it was done, you wished to be rewarded,

like children when they have swallowed down the draught

of bittersweet tea that perhaps will make them well.

So you chose your own reward, being still so far

removed from people, even then, that no one

could have imagined what reward would please you.

But you yourself knew. You sat up in your childbed

and in front of you was a mirror, which gave back

everything. And this everything was you,

and right in front; inside was mere deception,

the sweet deception of every woman who smiles

as she puts her jewelry on and combs her hair.

And so you died as women used to die,

at home, in your own warm bedroom, the old-fashioned

death death of women in labor, who try to close

themselves again but can’t, because that ancient

darkness which they have also given birth to

returns for them, thrusts its way in, and enters.

Once ritual lament would have been chanted;

women would have been paid to beat their breasts

and howl for you all night, when all is silent.

Where can we find such customs now ? So many

have long since disappeared or been disowned.

That’s what you had to come for: to retrieve

the lament that we omitted. Can you hear me ?

I would like to fling my voice out like a cloth

over the fragments of your death, and keep

pulling at it until it is torn to pieces,

and all my words would have to walk around

shivering, in the tatters of that voice;

if lament were enough. But now I must accuse:

not the man who withdrew you from yourself

(I cannot find him; he looks like everyone),

but in this one man, I accuse: all men.

When somewhere, from deep within me, there arises

the vivid sense of having been a child,

the purity and essence of that childhood

where I once lived: then I don’t want to know it.

I want to form an angel from that sense

and hurl him upward, into the front row

of angels who scream out, reminding God.

For this suffering has lasted far too long;

none of us can bear it; it is too heavy —

this tangled suffering of spurious love

which, building on convention like a habit,

calls itself just, and fattens on injustice.

Show me a man with a right to his possession.

Who can posses what cannot hold its own self,

but only, now and then, will blissfully

catch itself, then quickly throw itself

away, like a child playing with a ball.

As little as a captain can hold the carved

Nike facing outward from his ship’s prow

when the lightness of her godhead suddenly

lifts her up, into the bright sea-wind:

so little can one of us call back the woman

who, now no longer seeing us, walks on

along the narrow strip of her existence

as though by miracle, in perfect safety —

unless, that is, he wishes to do wrong.

For this is wrong, if anything is wrong:

not to enlarge the freedom of a love

with all the inner freedom one can summon.

We need, in love, to practice only this:

letting each other go. For holding on

comes easily; we do not need to learn it.


Are you still here ? Are you standing in some corner ?

You knew so much of all this, you were able

to do so much; you passed through life so open

to all things, like an early morning. I know:

women suffer; for love means being alone;

and artists in their work sometimes intuit

that they must keep transforming, where they love.

You began both; both exist in that

which any fame takes from you and disfigures.

Oh you were far beyond all fame; were almost

invisible; had withdrawn your beauty, softly,

as one would lower a brightly colored flag

on the gray morning after a holiday.

You had just one desire: a year’s long work —

which was never finished; was somehow never finished.

If you are still here with me, if in this darkness

there is still some place where your spirit resonates

on the shallow sound waves stirred up by my voice:

hear me: help me. We can so easily

slip back from what we have struggled to attain,

abruptly, into a life we never wanted;

can find that we are trapped, as in a dream,

and die there, without ever waking up.

This can occur. Anyone who has lifted

his blood into a years-long work may find

that he can’t sustain it, the force of gravity

is irresistible, and it falls back, worthless.

For somewhere there is an ancient enmity

between our daily life and the great work.

Help me, in saying it, to understand it.

Do not return. If you can bear to, stay

dead with the dead. The dead have their own tasks.

But help me, if you can without distraction,

as what is farthest sometimes helps: in me

. ~Translated by Stephen Mitchell

But I knew little about the story of her painting and her impact on Modern Art. I knew that Worpswede was outside of Bremen, and yet did not know until I was in Bremen a month ago that there was a whole museum dedicated to Modersohn-Becker. “The first European Museum dedicated solely to the art of a woman.” In fact the museum brochure goes so far as to state: “The Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum was the first museum in the world to be dedicated to the work of a female painter.”

Self-Portrait, Age 30 PMB

There, I was able to stand before her paintings and feel their power for myself. Then it was that her world opened up to me and I began to learn more about this singular woman and all that she was able to accomplish and change for women for all time.

“Modersohn-Becker had a ten-year painting career, during which she executed more than seven hundred paintings, pushed limits, experimented with technique, and revolutionized female body imagery. She also produced hundreds of drawings and a dozen etchings.”2

There is the story about her friendship with Rilke, and Clara and her husband Otto….so dramatic and intriguing there is a recent movie (2016) about her which I was able to watch on the plane on the way home from my trip. Remarkable timing for me! Titled, Paula, it confuses the timeline and many of the facts of her life, but is worth seeing just to have a feeling for this woman and all she accomplished.

The struggles and details of her personal life are interesting for sure but not what I want to focus on here. Too often women’s personal lives are focused on at the expense of their professional ambitions and accomplishments. What I want to write about in this post is Modersohn-Becker’s work, which mattered more to her than anything else, how she fought to accomplish certain things inside this male-dominated world of art and how her ambition allowed her to do this.

I want to write about the woman who wrote this:

“I love color. It must submit to me. And I love art. I kneel before it, and it must become mine. Everything around me glows with passion. Every day reveals a new red flower, glowing, scarlet red. Everyone around me carries them. Some wear them quietly hidden in their hearts. And they are like poppies just opening, of which one can see only here and there a hint of red petal peeking out from the green bud.”3

I want to write about this woman as described by Art Historian Diane Radycki In her book, Paula Modersohn-Becker : The First Modern Woman Artist:

“At the Threshold of modernism, Paula Modersohn-Becker risked everything in order to become “something.” Who she became was a daring innovator of gender imagery—the first modern woman artist to challenge centuries of traditional representations of the female body in art. Before Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) no woman artist painted herself nude, or mothers nude or girls nude.”4

Paula Modersohn-Becker was born Paula Becker in Dresden, Germany in 1876 to educated parents, parents that wanted her to work and be able to support herself. At age twelve she moved with her family to Bremen. She was eventually sent to England to live with her aunt and go to finishing school. Her aunt found her so unruly that she sent her to The School of Art in London (1892), to get her out of her hair. There the ambition was formed and Paula began her lifelong passion for the visual arts.

“I have a feeling for how things push into and on top of one other, I have only to develop and refine it carefully.”5

School was rigorous and Paula worked hard, continuing to work hard, often morning into night, her entire life. From then on trying to find a way, no matter what, to continue her art education, and pursue a painting career over the dull life of governess her father had in store for her.

“I don’t enjoy life if I am not working.”6

She studied in Berlin, at The School of the Association of Women Artists, (1896-1898), she studied in Paris, at the Académie Colarossi, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and when she was back in Bremen, she studied at Worpswede. Anything to keep on studying and doing her art. Paula even married the painter Otto Modersohn so that she could keep on painting as the deadline her father had set for her had passed.

“Lack of money rivets us to the ground,” she wrote. “One’s wings are clipped.”7

Her letters and journals document her struggles with her work, her aspirations, “I feel an inner relationship from the antique, mainly the early antique, to the Gothic, and from the Gothic to my sense of form.”8 And her understanding that she was actually accomplishing what she wanted to. Modersohn-Becker to his sister Milly, May 1906:

“I am becoming something—I am living the most intensely happy period of my life. Pray for me.”9

This was not just some woman who stumbled upon her fame or was discovered after she died because of her tragic death. This was a woman intentionally setting out to do all the things she did and writing about her disappointments and challenges as well as her intense passion to keep pursuing. She took in the current artists of the day, sat in the Louvre and studied the “masters.”

Bremen, Germany


“I am even, I believe, developing a connection with the sun. Not with the sun that divides up everything and puts in shadows everywhere and plucks apart the image into a thousand pieces, rather with the sun that broods and makes things gray and heavy and combines them all in this gray heaviness, so that they become one.”10

She worked non-stop and was committed to painting things as she saw them, not as she was told to paint.

“How happy I would be if I could give figurative expression to the unconscious feeling that often murmurs so softly and sweetly within me.”11

Nursing Mother, Nude, 1906 PMB

She fought for her vision, to capture “the gentle vibration in things,” and took risks that are hard for us to see or imagine today. Being the first woman to paint herself nude was a huge break with tradition and daring subject to attempt. It is not that she did now know this. She knew when she stood in front of her mirror and painted herself that she was doing just that. And that needs to be appreciated and celebrated.

“Modersohn-Becker entered the history of art as a painter of the figure, with little reference to her nudes. The difference hits hard on what constitutes the full meaning of her work, originality, and contribution to modernism. The nude is no accidental subject matter, or subcategory. Modersohn-Becker’s ambition is clear in her choices of subject, scale, and materials, down to the extent of her preparation. Her accomplishment is equally clear. What then accounts for the absence of the Nude in the critical discourse on Modersohn-Becker?

Today, post-Guerilla Girls and post modernism, Modersohn-Becker’s risk can escape us, used as we are to frank sexual images. Her female bodies defy the idealized and eroticized nude, and at the same time destabilize Self-Portrait, Children, and Mother and Child as minor genres in the hierarchy of painting categories. Modersohn-Becker shifted paradigms that, over the course of the twentieth century, continued to change with the person and the practice of the woman artist. From Frida Kahlo to Cindy Sherman and beyond, the legacy of Modersohn-Becker stretches through all those whose representation of women have challenged art.”12

All gets lost in a history of art where men were always painting the female nude and always painting self-portraits. But men were not painting themselves nude and Paula Becker was not a man painting a woman with all the projection of the male gaze that has occurred over time. No, Paula Becker painted the female body, her own and other women from the point of view of a woman. And this was groundbreaking and new.

“There is no male precedent for what she was doing, nor could there be. She painted the female body from within its immanent life, a radical spectacle of skin and pubic hair. In her work the erotic body no more wars with a maternal body than culture disconnects from nature. Any comparison for her paintings comes not from art’s history of the female nude, but from the future twentieth-century body imagery.

Baby, baby, not only could she do it, she did it first.”13

We must really think clearly to understand this. It had never been done before. Can you imagine? In 1900 this had not been done? And she knew it and she did it over and over and over again.

She was also the first woman to paint herself pregnant. Do you hear this long lists of firsts?

The museum in Bremen, Germany dedicated to Modersohn-Becker’s work.

As I stood in the museum looking upon Modersohn-Becker’s work, I felt strongly that in writing about her work I wanted to acknowledge her ambition and in that decision, came the understanding that I wanted to acknowledge my own ambition and also begin to understand more about the subject of women and ambition.

Leaving gender aside, what is ambition? A drive to express something one feels inside—to get it out—to create, to actualize a vision, a dream. Ambition is a push from within that utilizes our will forces. We have to work hard to actualize an ambition and yet the ambition itself often makes us willing to do that work. Often ambition can make us feel that we cannot not do the work. In that way it is a gift. It motivates us, makes us strive for the seeming impossible. Why is it then, that is has and continues to be difficult for a woman to own her own ambition?

Can we begin by stating clearly and confidently that there is nothing at all wrong with ambition?

In an interview with the New Yorker magazine about her book on Modersohn-Becker, Radycki states: “If I had another subtitle for this book, it would be about ambition. Because, for the most part, these artists, Morisot, Cassat, Frida Kahlo, maybe—are incredibly ambitious, and nobody writes about that. When I say ambitious, she was measuring herself and she wanted to beat everybody out. She knew she had it in her. When she hit her stride with the nude, she declares, ‘I’m doing it. I’m doing what nobody else had done, I’m seeing it, I’ve got it.’”14

It took me a long time to embrace my own ambitious nature. In fact, for a long time, I didn’t understand myself to be ambitious. And if I had, I might have thought that was a bad thing to be. But it is time to stop this way of thinking.

As psychiatrist Anna Fels discovered in her research into women and ambition, “I soon came to realize that although the articulate, educated group of women I interviewed could cogently and calmly talk about topics ranging from money to sex, when the subject of ambition arose, the level of intensity took a quantum leap. …For them, ‘ambition’ necessarily implied egotism, selfishness, self-aggrandizement, or the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends.”15

Reclining Mother and Child Nude II, 1906 PMB

Fels goes on to note that research reveals that part of the pursuit of ambition requires that accomplishments be acknowledged. In other words, one who is ambitious also wishes to be seen for what they have done: recognized, affirmed. In fact, studies show that, “It may be impossible to measure the ‘desire to improve a skill’ independent of the individual’s ‘desire for recognition.’ Without earned affirmation, long-term learning and performance are rarely achieved. Ambitions are both the product of and, later on, the source of affirmation.”16

This is an interesting conundrum. Ambition requires recognition, recognition encourages more ambition.

Read two subsequent pieces on Modersohn-Becker’s art here and here.

This for me is a missing piece of the puzzle for the advancement of women in any of the modalities in which they long for advancement. There have been plenty of ambitious women through time, of course, but women’s accomplishments have not been sufficiently recognized, affirmed and acknowledged. Women’s efforts and their achievements continue to go unrecognized. Women’s work is mostly trivialized, ignored, silenced and even worse, it is often stolen. Take Paula Modersohn-Becker as a shining example.

This sets up a continuous cycle of being disappeared, discouraged and ignored and perpetuates the pattern we now see of so many women starting out ambitious then losing the will to continue.

Self-Portrait, 1905 PMB

Women have spent most of their time in the patriarchy acknowledging men’s accomplishments which has ironically helped men achieve even more, because the acknowledgment helps one go on to continue in their pursuit and achieve more.

The data shows that “It is difficult for women to confront and address the unspoken mandate that they subordinate needs for recognition to those of others—particularly men. The expectation is so deeply rooted in the culture’s ideals of femininity that it is largely unconscious.”17

Women have to begin acknowledging each other’s achievements and accomplishments. We have to do this in order for women to achieve and accomplish. That is the way it works. We have to do this for each other. Here I do it for Paula Modersohn-Becker.

Who do you want to turn and offer your acknowledgement and encouragement to? Which woman in your life is ambitious and doing great work, any kind of work, any kind of dream, any kind of project? How about offering that recognition to her today. You are doing a great job! I see how hard you are working on things that are important for you to accomplish. I recognize your drive and your will and I encourage you to continue.

Ambition. I want to recognize Paula Modersohn-Becker’s ambition. In recognizing that we can finally value her accomplishments. Because it was not by accident that she did any of these things. It is because of her ambition to do so.

Paula Modersohn-Becker is a #NastyWomanArtistandWriter

©Theresa C. Dintino 2017

Works Cited

1 John Colapinto, “Paula Modersohn-Becker: Modern Painting’s Missing Piece,” The New Yorker, October 29, 2013. p.1

2 Diane Radycki, Paula Modersohn-Becker, The First Modern Woman Artist,(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)p. 94

3 Paula Modersohn-Becker. (n.d.) AZQuotes.com. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from AZQuotes.com Web site: http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1182047

4 Radycki, p.1

5 Ibid., p.189

6 Ibid., P.210

7 Paula Modersohn-Becker. (n.d.) AZQuotes.com. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from AZQuotes.com Web site: http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1182047

8 Radycki, p.199

9 Ibid., p.135

10 Ibid., P.96

11 Paula Modersohn-Becker. (n.d.) AZQuotes.com. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from AZQuotes.com Web site: http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1182047

12 Radycki, p. 158-159.

13 Radycki p.180

14 John Colapinto, “Paula Modersohn-Becker: Modern Painting’s Missing Piece,” The New Yorker, October 29, 2013. p.4

15 Anna Fels, “Do Women Lack Ambition?” Harvard Business Review, April, 2004. p.2

16 Ibid., p.4

17 Ibid., p.7