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Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907) is celebrated as one of the first great German Modernists whose remarkable art defied the professional obstacles she faced. Women were barred from state art academies in Germany until 1919; instead, Modersohn-Becker took lessons and attended private art schools for women, eventually settling at the artists’ colony of Worpswede in northern Germany. Patterned after the French artists’ colony at Barbizon, where Jean-François Millet lived and worked, the Worpswede colony produced artists who depicted the people and landscape of their rural surroundings in a realistic style. Modersohn-Becker shared her colleagues’ passion for rural subjects but sought other sources of stylistic inspiration. Traveling to Paris in the 1900s, she was influenced by the French Postimpressionists and expressed deep admiration for the “wonderful pictures” of Millet.[1] From his example, she concluded that “intimacy is the soul of all great art” and cultivated that quality in her paintings.[2]

Modersohn-Becker’s many portraits of Worpswede residents share essential features with Millet’s scenes of peasant life, such as The Knitting Lesson. Millet tenderly depicted the ruddy-cheeked figures of a mother gently encouraging her daughter with her knitting. In Old Peasant Woman Modersohn-Becker imbued her sitter with the same dignity and humanity. The woman’s large, weathered hands and weary face convey a lifetime of hard work, while her enigmatic expression and prayerful gesture adds a deeper symbolic meaning. Small yellow flowers in her lap and green foliage in the background hint at the woman’s spiritual unity with nature—a trait critics frequently ascribed to Millet’s work as well.[3]

Paula Modersohn-Becker, German, 1876–1907; Old Peasant Woman, c.1905; oil on canvas; 29 3/4 x 22 3/4 inches; Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Robert H. Tannahill 2020.97

There is also a simplicity in Modersohn-Becker’s art that connects her to the tradition of Millet. In Two Girls in Front of Birch Trees she depicted the children as flattened bodies and round faces with indistinct features. They stand in a birch grove reduced to decorative planes of brown and blue punctuated by the strong verticals of tree trunks. Modersohn-Becker’s simplified style reflects not only Millet but also Postimpressionist artists like Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh and situates her work in the context of the most progressive art of her day.

Sadly, even her closest associates failed to recognize her achievements. The Symbolist poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Modersohn-Becker’s good friend, introduced her as “the wife of a very distinguished painter” when she visited him in Paris.[4] In her lifetime, she participated in three exhibitions, which were all panned, and sold only three paintings. These rejections hurt, but they also inspired her to work independently to find her own artistic voice. More than a decade after her death at the age of thirty-one, the world finally caught up with Modersohn-Becker. In 1919, the year German women gained equal rights, her art appeared at leading galleries and she was the subject of two popular books. Her new admirers marveled at her timeless and intimate paintings of the women and children of rural Worpswede, the same qualities that drew her to Millet.

  • [1] Paula Becker to Otto Modersohn, January 17, 1900, in Paula Modersohn-Becker: The Letters and Journals, Gunter Busch and Liselotte von Reinken, ed., Arthur S. Wensinger and Carole Clew Hoey, ed. and trans. (New York: Taplinger, 1983): 158.
    [2] Paula Modersohn-Becker to Otto Modersohn, February 23, 1903, in ibid., 299.
    [3] Elizabeth H. Payne, “An Old Peasant Woman Praying by Paula Modersohn-Becker,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 39, 1 (1959–1960): 20.
    [4] Paula Modersohn-Becker to Otto Modersohn, March 2, 1903, in Modersohn-Becker: The Letters and Journals, 303.

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