Susan P. Bachrach: PAULA MODERSOHN-BECKER (1876-1907) Woman and Artist as Revealed Through Her Depiction of Children
Note: Links to paintings discussed will be added; many images available at Wikimedia Commons: Paula Modersohn-Becker
In Paula Modersohn-Becker’s diary notation of March 1902, she wrote, “In my first year of marriage I have often wept and the tears fall often as they did in my childhood—in large drops. They occur when I hear music and when I see beautiful things which move me. In the last analysis, I live alone just as much as I did in my childhood. This aloneness makes me sometimes sad and sometimes happy. I believe it deepens one’s life. One lives less according to outward appearances….One lives inwardly” (BuT 113). In these few lines one receives a strong impression of a very sensitive twenty-six year old who clearly found crucial similarities between her childhood and her adult existence.
In her work, too, she, also, felt very close to the children she drew and painted. She described in a letter to her family as early as July of 1897 that in portraying a small, blond, blue-eyed “little thing” as it stood so beautifully on the yellow sand, she felt her heart beat strongly. She went on to express the opinion that it was far more important to paint human beings than landscapes (BuT 18).
In the ten years she had to work before her premature death at the age of thirty-one, she created four hundred paintings and one thousand drawings. In the Bremen exhibition of 1976 celebrating the hundredth anniversary of her birth, seventy-three of the two hundred twelve paintings shown were of children. These may be categorized as 1.) portraits of a single child, 2.) portraits of a single child with animal, 3.) portraits of two children, and 4.) portraits of mother and child.
The earliest depictions of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s children I had the opportunity to see were the 1901 “Girl with Yellow Wreath” (Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal) and the “Portrait of a Girl” (Staedelschen Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt (Fig. 1). They are not like any portraits of children one has seen before! If one is reminded of anyone, it is of Munch’s “Sick Child.” There is a definite sickly pallor in the skin tones of the children of both artists, but the similarity ends there.
Paula Modersohn-Becker’s young girls here are Worpswede children. By comparison to other portraits of children through the ages, not only are they older, sadder, more serious, and not beautiful as they stare out into the distant beyond, but also, the isolated landscapes behind each child are of Worpswede—with its narrow birches and small haystacks as parts of the vast moorland. In the portraits of the two individual girls, each stands alone—the canvas closely cropped below her shoulders. Each wears the uncertain look of one not sure about the future, but aware of one’s responsibility for it.
Paula also felt this same responsibility for her own future. For several years before her marriage, she often received letters from her parents “dissatisfied” with her. On one such occasion she wrote back in January 1900 that “I see, also, no end. I must however, peacefully find my own way. If I only can, then, things will be better. You don’t appear to believe in me, so I must believe in myself.” (BuT 60).
In February of 1901, a few months before her marriage to Otto Modersohn, she expressed the desire to paint Elsbeth, her future step-daughter with her golden hair. After having completed her painting of Elsbeth she wrote with confidence to her mother in July of 1902 that she felt that “a time will soon arrive when I do not need to feel ashamed, but instead will feel proud that I am a painter” (BuT 117).
“Elsbeth, 1902” (Paula Modersohn-Becker Haus, Bremen) (Fig. 2) is a very sensitive full-length portrait of her step-daughter well-deserving of her growing confidence in herself. The child stands barefoot in a Worpswede landscape, foxglove behind her on the right, hens pecking behind her on the left, and slender trees in the left corner. The background as in the aforementioned canvases of 1901 is simply the setting; once again the child commands the canvas! The child’s skin is very delicately rendered, very different from the mottled handling of skin in the previous canvases. The child, her mouth open a fraction stares shyly at the ground. She wears a white polka-dotted dress. Above all else, Elsbeth’s stance—her bare feet spread slightly apart—is beautifully expressive of a quintessential child-like quality. Due to the delicacy of the child’s skin, the strong outline of her body, the pronounced pattern of her dress, and the ornamental quality of the foxglove, one is reminded of Jugendstil, but unlike other Jugendstil art, this style is only an element in the painting and not the main thrust of it.
In her depiction of children in 1903, Paula presents them with a head-on directness. This is evident not only in her “Seated Child with Crossed Arms” (PMBecker Haus, Bremen) (Fig. 3) and in her “Young Girl with Cat” (Private Collection), but also, in her “Self-Portrait” (Kunsthalle, Bremen) (Fig. 4), more child-like than any of her other self-portraits. The soulful eyes in each portrait are enormous orbs—blue, in the child-portraits; brown, in her own. There is a frankness, an openness accompanied by a seeming awareness of the realities of existence at even so young an age in the “Child with Crossed Arms.” There is, also, the questioning, but unremitting stare in her own self-portrait of this year. Once again, the child reflects her own view of herself.
In her diary notation of February 25, 1903, she wrote that previously she had not been able to find any relationship between ancient and modern art, but that she had now found an inner connection between antiquity and Gothic art and from Gothic to her own feeling for form. Above all, she found the great simplicity of form in the eyes, mouths, noses, cheeks, and chins of the ancient world (BuT 130). It is interesting here to consider the influence exerted on her by her viewing of the large, roundish, unshaded eyes of Egyptian, Greek, and Gothic sculpture in the Louvre on her own rendering of soulful eyes.
Also, in 1903, she painted a picture of “A Young Girl with Cat.” (Private Collection). The child sits in a full-length pose this time, clutching tenderly a cat on its lap. Although the child is very young, it protects, takes care of the animal as its responsibility. Here again are those enormous orbs for eyes; the whole face, expressing a sad shyness. This is the first of several portrait-studies of child embracing animal.
In “A Young Girl with Cat” as in the “Seated Child with Crossed Arms,” there is a great simplicity of shapes. In each painting, a greyish background surrounds the child, who wears a reddish-orange dress of a very basic shape in the case of the former, just as the latter wears the same shape this time in a mottled red. The basic shapes and colors make one focus once again on the face of the child and not on any extraneous detail of dress or any element of the background.
In 1903 she also, painted her first significant mother and child portrait, entitled, “Nursing Mother” (Niedersaechsische Landsgalerie, Hannover) (Fig. 5). It is more naturalistic than her later depictions of mother and child and is definitely influenced by Prof. Fritz Mackensen’s version of the same theme. Mackensen (1866-1953), a Worpswede painter, had been her teacher in 1897-1898. Yet although there are many similarities between Paula Modersohn-Becker’s version and Mackensen’s “Nursing Mother on a Peat Cart” 1893, commonly known as the “Worpsweder Madonna” (Kunsthalle, Bremen) (Fig. 6), there are several important differences. Paula has cropped her version just below the rump of the baby whereas Mackensen has presented us with a full-length version complete with sky, ground, and the cart on which she sits. Mackensen has painted a genre scene of mother breast-feeding outdoors in a rural setting. By contrast, Paula has focused our attention on an intense close-up of the mother and child as an integral whole. The mother’s large breast is about the size of the baby’s head nestled against it. Also, in contrast to Mackensen’s version where the mother’s head looks down on her child, in Modersohn-Becker’s version, the mother stares out at the world with melancholy eyes. The impact is so much more intense in Paula’s version.
In her 20 February 1903 Paris diary notation, she wrote that she was seeking to learn how to express the “quiet vibration of things.” She was trying to attain that “incredible waiting quality which sweeps over things (skin, Otto’s forehead, materials, flowers) in all its great simple beauty.” Above all, she wanted to achieve through close observation, the greatest simplicity. (BuT 129) As evidenced by the examples shown of her work from 1903, she had well begun to achieve some of her aims.
In 1904, although she portrayed the child in many different ways, Paula particularly depicted the very young child or infant. I know of no other German artist who painted the baby alone. It is true, for example, that Hans Thoma (1839-1924) depicted in drypoint “The Sleeping Baby” 1901 (Kunsthalle, Bremen) (Fig. 7) and Modersohn-Becker dealt with the same theme in her painting “Sleeping Baby” 1904 ( Private Collection) (Fig. 8), but the similarity ends there. Whereas Thoma’s detailed, delicately outlined drypoint is 6” x 7”, Modersohn- Becker’s painting is 25” x 30”. It was not for her an incidental study; indeed, it was one of four paintings submitted by her to the 1906 Bremen Kunsthalle exhibition. Also, there is a much more sensuous quality to Paula’s version. The baby, although nestled against the cozy blankets, is yet still exposed. There is no blanket covering the babe. You see clearly the stubby arms with their clenched fists and the stubby legs with their tiny, unprotected feet exposed to the elements. Also, the angle at which the child is lying—open across the canvas—the tilt of the head, the curve of the little body—all illustrate well the way a baby really looks while sleeping. In the Hans Thoma version, on the contrary, the babe, asleep on its side, is only a juvenile adaptation of the way an adult sleeps.
Modersohn-Becker, moreover, conveyed the same beautiful quality of the baby in “The Infant with the Hand of the Mother” 1903 or 1904 (Kunsthalle, Bremen). Here the child with its enormous dark eyes and pouting lips, clutches its pudgy stomach with both small hands. The baby wearing a wrap-around undershirt tied in a knot above its stomach is not idealized or beautified as in Philipp Otto Runge’s depiction of the babe in his “Morning” 1808 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg).
In “The Young Girl on a Red-Checkered Pillow” 1904 (PMBecker Haus, Bremen) (Fig. 9), the seated blond child, holding one very small white flower, looks shyly to the ground. Beneath her beautifully patterned dress emerge two small feet wearing shoes so closely identified with a child. Once again, Modersohn-Becker has depicted a little girl in a pose which is natural to a child. The placement of the child on the pillow and the placement of the baby across the blanket in the “Sleeping Baby”—the compositional arrangement is much more highly developed than in her earlier canvases. Modersohn-Becker has created patterns and shapes (Note the bell shape formed by the seated child) which intricately harmonize, emphasizing rather than detracting from the natural, sensuous quality of the child.
In February of 1905, Paula Modersohn-Becker wrote to her husband from Paris that the old masters no longer had such a strong impact on her as before (BuT 146). Yet, I still find that the depiction of the little girl presented to us in the “Worpsweder Bauernkind,” 1905, (Kunsthalle, Bremen) (Fig. 10) is reminiscent of the way, for example, Bronzino (1503-1572) depicted Marie de Medici. In Bronzino’s “Portrait of a Princess of the Medici Family” (Uffizi Gallery, Florence) and in Modersohn-Becker’s “Worpsweder Bauernkind,” we observe the same very upright posture of the seated girl and the same large eyes staring uflinchingly out at us. We also immediately perceive the differences. Modersohn-Becker’s peasant child’s face and body are completely frontal—making the confrontation with the little girl all the more intense—and not in a stylized three-quarter pose as in the Bronzino portrait. The pudgy nose and mouth of the peasant child are in sharp contrast to the more refined features of the Medici princess. And finally, the unadorned dress of the Worpswede child, her wooden shoes clinging to the rungs of the simple chair on which she sits, are obviously very different from the clothes and jewelry of Marie de Medici. The similarities and the differences between these two portraits, however, well illustrate Karl-Heinz Hueter’s observation that “what she was trying to achieve was fundamentally a new classicism consisting of a closely linked naivete and classicism” (BuT 178).
In 1905, she painted two more versions of a single child with animal—the “Girl with Rabbit” (Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal) and the “Girl with Cat” (PMBecker Haus, Bremen) (Fig. 11). Each girl cuddles and protects a creature as dear to her as a new-born infant would be to its mother.
Also, in this same year, Paula painted one more of her several versions of older child protecting younger child or as in “The Blind Little Sister” (Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne), the seeing protecting the unseeing. As in the aforementioned “Infant with the Hand of the Mother” and in the 1904 “Two Children” (now lost), the arm of the older of the two children or of the mother is placed gently, but firmly around the shoulder of the young child; the stronger figure, standing or seated on the left.
In April of 1905, when Paula returned to Worpswede after her third stay in Paris, she wrote to her mother that she had once again eagerly sought out all her former child-models and that they were all to be found exactly where she had expected to find them, in the same four cottages. She discovered, also, several new additions to the families, and felt very envious of “dies zappelnde neue Leben,” this wriggling new life (BuT 151). s
During her very short life-time, Paula Modersohn-Becker not only enjoyed being with children and even playing child (in a 1903 letter to her husband, she said she looked forward to playing again in the hay with him and Elsbeth), but she, also, truly desired a child of her own. In her diary notation of October 22, 1901, a few months after her marriage, she wrote that three young women in Worpswede were expecting children around Christmas, but that she was not yet ripe and would have to wait a little while. On March 10, 1903, in a letter to her husband from Paris, she wrote that as she fell asleep, she would think lovingly of small children, and that she now felt like a woman, full of expectations, which were quieter and more serious than those she had had when she was a girl. Her longing for a child was so great that in 1906, in her “Self-Portrait on the Sixth Anniversary of her Wedding” (PMBecker Haus, Bremen), she even portrayed herself as pregnant! Her face is tinged with sadness, she stands naked, her arms encircling her pregnant stomach.
In 1906 and 1907, she painted and drew many versions of the nude mother and child. Some were fairly naturalistic, as in the Wuppertal Museum’s “Halbakt,” of 1906; other versions suggest the influence of Gaugin or of certain Cubist artists, as in the 1907 “Kneeling Mother with Child at her Breast” (PMBecker Haus, Bremen).
On March 9, 1907, Paula wrote very briefly to her mother to announce that perhaps in October she would become a grandmother!
In Paula Modersohn-Becker’s “Mother and Child, Lying Down” 1906-1907 (PMBecker Haus, Bremen) (Fig. 12), she handles this great theme in a truly individual manner. She depicts mother and child—both nude—(a state inconceivable in a Cassatt painting of the same theme) lying down, nestled beside each other. The skin-tones are an array of many different flesh-tones. The two sensuous masses formed by the bodies of mother and child, although of very different sizes, are yet, perfectly in harmony.
The heavy shape of the mother reminds one of the sculpture of Maillol. Paula had first seen and loved Malliol’s work in the Spring of 1905 in Paris (where she would have seen Maillol’s “Mediterranean” exhibited at the Salon d’Automne) and later, in November of the same year at the Folkwang Museum, Hagen (where she would have seen one of Malliol’s terra-cotta sculptures of the female nude). There is in Modersohn-Becker’s “Mother and Child, Lying Down” a quiet, natural stillness and a non-temporal quality found in the work of Maillol. And yet, in the midst of the sensuous forms of the Modersohn-Becker painting, there is a spirituality, even a mystical quality lacking in Maillol’s work. There is a lovely wordless communion between the mother and the child. They are as equals—both naked, both inextricably part of Nature. The babe needs protection, but the mother has, also, a need to provide that protection. They are adjacent and yet, separate, the communion flowing between their bodies.
In December of 1900, Paula wrote to her then future husband that there were two mysteries in the world, that of Mary, or Motherhood, and that of Death. These two were her religion for she could not understand either. She knelt before them in humility (BuT 87). It is very interesting to read that she described Art in the same reverential words. In a letter written to her brother Kurt in April of 1900, she equated Art with her life, her religion, and her soul (BuT 71). In her Paris diary notation of January 1900, she wrote that she had to serve Art on bended knee, and above all, conquer it, make it her own (BuT 58). And this she did, working indefatigably all her short life, saddened and annoyed when she could not work for an extended period of time due to family obligations of one kind or another.
She also worked compulsively because she had had several premonitions of early death. On July 26, 1900, she wrote in her diary, “I know that I shall not live long. But is that sad? Is a celebration more beautiful, because it is longer? And my life is a celebration, a short, intense celebration….and if I have painted three good pictures, then, I would willingly depart….” (BuT 79)
Indeed, Paula Modersohn-Becker’s short, but fruitful life has truly an element of the child’s fable to it. This metaphor is an apt one for she truly loved playing with and playing as a child. Above all else, she could so empathize with children and so use all that she had learned in Paris and had seen in Worpswede—that she was able to capture on canvas the quintessential nature of the child. But, having done all that and in trying to unravel the mysteries of life—Motherhood and Death—she came to know all too briefly the experience of Motherhood, only to succumb to Death three weeks after her daughter was born.
We can only imagine how beautiful and how different the portraits of her own child might have been!
I found particularly helpful for my research the following four books:
Paula Modersohn-Becker, Briefe und Tageblaetter, with an epilogue by Karl-Heinz Hueter, Gustav Kiepenheuer Verlag, Weimar, 1966. (Cited in the text as BuT; all translations are the author’s.)
Paula Modersohn-Becker in Briefen und Tagebuechern, edited by Guenther Busch and Liselotte von Reinken, S.Fischer Verlag GmbH., Frankfurt, 1979.
Paula Modersohn-Becker zum hundertsten Geburtstag, Bremen catalogue for the exhibition celebrating the hundredth anniversary of her birth, 1976.
Paula Modersohn-Becker: Kinderbildnisse, introduction and selection of pictures by Christa Murken-Altrogge, R. Piper & Co. Verlag, Munich, 1978.
If you hold the rights to one or more of the images on this page and object to its/their appearance here, please contact Fembio.