Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self Portrait with Amber Necklace, 1906, oil on canvas
Today marks the birthday of Paula Modersohn Becker. (February 8, 1876 - November 21, 1907) In a brief yet intense career, this German lady became an important representative of early expressionism. Together with fellow artists Picasso and Matisse, she introduced modernism to the early 20th century world. By the time she died at just 31 years old, she had already created a number of groundbreaking images.
Growing up in Dresden and Bremen, her parents provided her and her six siblings a cultured and intellectual education. She received a teacher’s training as well as a private instruction in painting. At age 22, she immersed herself in the artistic community of Worpswede with artists such as Fritz Mackensen and Heinrich Vogeler. There, they protested against the domination of the art academy and life in the big city. She grew to be part of that community through her mother’s friendships in the art world.
By 1899, she followed her friend Clara Westhoff to go study in Paris. She would continue to travel back to Paris often and it is there, during the great Centennial Exhibition of 1900, that she first met her future husband Otto Modersohn. The marriage however wasn’t a warm one and would remain unconsummated until her final year. When they did finally were together, she would die from an embolism only two weeks after their first child was born. This tragedy continues with the knowledge that she wrote in detail about her need to delay motherhood in her pursuit of artistic freedom. She had planned to focus on her passion for art up to age thirty to then have children afterwards.
She is now recognized as the first female painter to depict female nudes and has become known for using bold subject matters and chromatic color choices. As she came from a bourgeois family and was formally trained, her nudes were particularly unconventional and her simplicity of form was recognizable. Artistically, she was influenced by Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and fauvism.
Paula Modersohn-Becker was not widely known at the time of her death and would have dropped into obscurity hadn’t it been for the fact that she meticulously kept a diary and saved her correspondence with fellow befriended artists. Those letters have been studied and were translated into English by Diane Radycki.