DETAIL: Paula Modersohn-Becker (German; 1876–1907). Girl wth Cat in the Birch Forest, 1904/05. Oil on canvas; 37.8″ × 32″. Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, Bremen, Germany
ABOUT THE ARTIST
In John Colapinto’s 2013 New Yorker article, German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker is described as “Modern Painting’s Missing Piece.” He goes on to write: “With her bold experiments in subject matter, color, modelling, and brushwork, Modersohn-Becker was among the painters, along with Picasso and Matisse, who created modernism in the first years of the 20th century.” Pretty hefty (and accurate) praise for an artist that most people have never heard of.
Paula Modersohn-Becker (PMB) was born in Dresden, Germany in 1876. In 1888 the Becker family relocated to Bremen, in Northern Germany. Five years later, PMB enrolled in a teacher-training program, where she stayed until 1895. During this period she also received private art instruction. At 22, she moved to an artist colony in nearby Worpswede, where a group of artists were devoting themselves to creating art in a natural environment, apart from industrial city life and the pressures the academic establishment. Here, PMB painted the birch forests and peasant farmers of Worpswede with astonishing maturity.
In 1899 she made her first journey to Paris. She took art classes, spent hours in the Louvre studying old masters, and visited art galleries. The works of the Post-Impressionists, particularly van Gogh, Gauguin and Paul Cézanne were a revelation to PMB. Her brilliant still-life paintings are clearly inspired by Cézanne’s handling of space, color, and surface texture. Art historically, PMB is grouped with the German Expressionists, although aesthetically and stylistically her work relates more to the French painters than to any of the Germans.
“Modersohn-Becker was among the painters,
along with Picasso and Matisse, who created modernism
in the first years of the 20th century.”
—John Colapinto, The New Yorker
In 1901 she returned to Worpswede and married landscape painter Otto Modersohn (1865–1943). From 1901 to 1907, PMB moved between the artists’ colony and Paris, where she began to develop an aesthetic that places her firmly in the mix of modernism.
In 1906 she began a series of female nudes: portraits of mothers and children, and more daringly, self-portraits. Up to this point no female painter depicted herself nude. As she was working on these groundbreaking pieces, she wrote, “I’m doing it. I’m doing what nobody else has done, I’m seeing it, I’ve got it.”
Art historian and PMB scholar Diane Radycki said, “Before Modersohn-Becker, there was no one. Women did not approach themselves that way … . We think it all happened in the ’70s. It happens with her.” (John Colapinto. “Paula-Modersohn-Becker: Modern Painting’s Missing Piece.” The New Yorker. October 29, 2013)
In 1907, PMB returned to Worpswede and became pregnant. She gave birth to her daughter, Mathilde. Tragically, she died shortly thereafter from a pulmonary embolism. After her death, the acclaimed poet Rainer Marie Wilke (1875–1926), celebrated PMB’s life and work in his poem “Requiem for a Friend (Paula Modersohn-Becker 1876–1907).” In this excerpt, he captures the spirit of the artist who helped shape what the world considers modern art:
That is what you understood: the ripe fruits.
You placed them in bowls there in front of you
and weighed out their heaviness with pigments
ABOUT THE ARTWORK
Girl with Cat in the Birch Forest (1904/05) is an example of a subject that Paula Modersohn-Becker was particularly drawn: the peasantry and forests of Northern Germany. The birch trees in the Worpswede forests were particular inspirations for Modersohn-Becker. Although in this image the birches serve as framing devices, the artist often used these white-barked trees as main subjects.
“The Worpswede peasant women, often with their infants, and the old women and children from the poor house became her favorite models, and she recorded the picturesque landscape, the dark moors and stormy skies, fields with thatched cottages, woods of slender birch trees, and canals for transporting peat moss to Bremen.” (biography.yourdictionary.com)
Here, a young peasant girl protectively holds her cat as she looks off into the wood. Although of the peasant class, she fills the frame and takes on a statuesque quality. In the background, tucked between the slender trees, are additional figures: a single individual on the left, a mother holding a baby on the right. Who are they? Why are they in the woods? A subtle sense of mystery pervades the image.
The artist’s distinctive brushwork, created by carving into thick, wet paint, creates texture and depth similar to one of her heroes, Vincent van Gogh. And like van Gogh, the humble peasant, in the hands of Paula Modersohn-Becker, is transformed.
click here for resources related to this article
From The April 2016 Issue Of Arts & Activities
Want To Have This Month’s Full-Size Print For Your Classroom?