Artist Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Portraits Were Ahead of Their Time

Raw and affecting depictions of rural life in the early 20th century were strikingly modern

Half-Length Portrait of a Peasant, His Head Resting on His Right Hand
Half-Length Portrait of a Peasant, His Head Resting on His Right Hand, oil tempera on cardboard, c. 1903. The artist created the work at an art colony in Germany. ©Museumsbund Nordfriesland, Husum / Germany: Foto: Sönke Ehlert

Her career lasted only a decade, but Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) painted more than 500 canvases, including moody landscapes, wry self-portraits and careful studies of children, old people and the residents of a local poorhouse. She approached even her humblest subjects with a rare respect, says Ingrid Pfeiffer, curator of a new retrospective at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, on view until February. “She gave value to each person she painted,” Pfeiffer says. Yet her intense, unsentimental depictions of rural people held little appeal to art buyers at the end of the Victorian era. Indeed, during her life Modersohn-Becker, whose upper-middle-class Bremen family encouraged her artistic education in London, Berlin and Paris, sold just four paintings. It was only after she died at 31, from complications of childbirth, that her work began to find an audience. Today, she is regarded as a pioneer of the artistic movement that would become known as Expressionism, with a style that was years ahead of her contemporaries. “I am still an incomplete person and should so like to become someone,” she wrote. “Then again, I also feel that whoever thinks of me as incomplete needn’t really bother to look in my direction.”   

Self-Portrait With Red Flower Wreath and Chain, 1906-07. Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover, Rutund Klaus-Bahlsen-Stiftung, © Landesmuseum Hannover – ARTOTHEK
Old Peasant Woman
Old Peasant Woman, 1905. The Detroit Institute of Arts, © Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Robert H. Tannahill

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