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The Life and Art of Paula Modersohn-Becker

One of Worpswede’s most notable artists, Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907) was an early expressionist painter (and the first woman artist to paint a nude self-portrait). Raised in an upper-middle-class Bremen family, Paula Becker began studying art at 16 but two years later defied her parents and moved to Worpswede when a lucky inheritance came her way. There she met respected painter Otto Modersohn, 11 years older and married. She later moved to Paris to study at the Académie Colarossi, one of the few art schools to accept female students. In 1900 Modersohn’s wife died after a long illness, and the next year Paula married Otto and returned to Worpswede, becoming stepmother to his two-year-old daughter and continuing to paint.

Eschewing classical subjects, Modersohn-Becker depicted women of all ages in frank, everyday poses – often nude, or at tasks like breast-feeding or tending livestock – using bold, rough strokes, with simple forms and deep colours. Strong-willed and ambitious – and frustrated with society’s constrictions on women – she was determined to be a painter, and over the next several years made more trips back to Paris, leaving Otto to settle there again in 1906. That year, working with a ferocity unmatched by most artists, she completed 80 canvases, an average of one every 4½ days.

In 1907 she reconciled with Otto and moved back to Worpswede, pregnant with their first child. In November she gave birth to a daughter, but died just 18 days later of an embolism when she stood up after her enforced bed-rest was over; her last words were ‘Wie schade!’ (‘What a pity!’). Only 31 at her death, she left an exceptionally large body of work – over 700 pieces, many of which can be seen at galleries around Worpswede and at the Paula Modersohn-Becker Haus Museum in Bremen, the world’s first museum devoted to the works of a woman artist. Though unrecognised in her lifetime (she sold only three paintings), today she’s considered an important pioneer of German art. We’ll never know how much more she could have contributed to the art world had she lived longer – wie schade indeed.