The First Modern Woman Artist: Paula Modersohn-Becker

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) was a groundbreaking painter whose often-overlooked place in modernism forces us to reconsider our understanding of art in the early twentieth century. Modersohn-Becker was the first artist to paint herself nude, as well as mothers and children nude, and in doing so, challenged traditional representations of the female body in art. Yet Modersohn-Becker was not widely recognized during her lifetime.Diane Radycki, author of Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Woman Artist, presents a biography of the artist as well as an extensive analysis of her work.

paula modersohn becker

Selbstporträt vor blühenden Bäumen, 1902.

Radycki is particularly interested in Modersohn-Becker’s influence on the definition of modernism as we’ve come to define it today. In a recent conversation with the author, she explained one such definition: “Modernism is the entrance of women as serious professional participants in changing the landscape of subject matter in painting.” It is the era in which the woman artist asserted the validity and influence of her art practice. Modersohn-Becker was at the forefront of this transformation.

In 1927, the Paula Modersohn-Becker museum opened in Bremen, Germany. How does a woman die unknown and then twenty years later have the first museum dedicated to a female artist in all of Europe built for her? This central question led Radycki to discover just how ahead of the time she truly was. Modersohn-Becker was a decade ahead of her artistic contemporaries, and then the war intervened. Radycki explains, “War changes the audience. The audience for art and entertainment before the First World War is quite different than the cynicism and distrust time after the war. After the war they looked at her with different eyes.”

After the war ended in November 1918, Modersohn-Becker was exhibited in the summer of 1919 at Berlin’s most popular new galleries. She was finally recognized to have turned around a new artistic language and a new artistic subject. She was even included in the infamous Nazi degenerate art show, which we now understand as a roadmap to modernism in the early 20th century.  Modersohn-Becker was one of the few women to be exhibited.

In my conversation with Radycki, she proposed yet another aspect of Modersohn-Becker’s influence on modernism. In the beginning of Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Woman Artist, the epigraph presents a quote from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which was published in 1927, the very year that the Modersohn-Becker museum opened. Modersohn-Becker was a very close friend of Rainer Maria Rilke, the German poet whose works, at the time of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, were being translated and published by Vita Sackville-West. At a high moment of West’s relationship with Woolf, West was translating Rilke’s poem, “Requiem For a Friend,” which serves as a tribute to Paula Modersohn-Becker. Radycki explains, “I discovered that there were biographical parts in that poem that show up in the Woolf piece, particularly in the painter-character, Lily Briscoe. There are lines, descriptions, metaphors in the Rilke that are in the Woolf, and when I did more research on To the Lighthouse, I was so startled when I read that Virginia Woolf said, ‘I am really not writing a novel, I am writing a requiem.’”

Radycki’s connection made between Woolf and Modersohn-Becker is a very important one because of the place that the book takes in the history of modernism. Woolf wrote this extraordinary novel in 1925, and by that time the Modersohn-Becker museum was beginning construction. It seems probable that Woolf, given her position in the intimate circles of art and literature in London, was aware of the new museum. This is only one mystery of Modersohn-Becker’s life, and it is this space of uncertainty that motivates Radycki’s research. She explains, “All the holes were there in her life, and that kept me so puzzled about the art.  That nice daughter, that nice wife. That was not what I was seeing in the painting. I jumped into the hole.”

– Caroline Hayes

Caroline Hayes  recently graduated from New York University with a degree in Comparative Literature and was a summer intern in Yale University Press’s Art Workshop.

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