Paula Modersohn-Becker, Clara Rilke Westhoff, 1905
Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) was a groundbreaking German painter and a pioneer of Expressionism. She has been called the first Modernist woman painter and is possibly the first woman to paint female nudes, including a self-portrait. Paula Becker was born in Dresden and raised in an intellectual household. While visiting an aunt in London, she received her first drawing instruction and began receiving private and museum instruction when she returned to Germany. In 1899 she also studied in Paris. While there, she met her husband, Otto Modersohn. Modersohn-Becker's work explores many aspects of the lives of women, from the loneliness of childhood to the trials of aged poverty. She portrays all of these scenes with great sensitivity and deep emotion. One of her most celebrated paintings shows the bond between mother and child. The portrait I am featuring is of Modersohn-Becker's close friend Clara Westhoff, a sculptor in her own right, with whom she traveled to Paris. Westhoff married the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke (whom Modersohn-Becker also painted). Modersohn-Becker shows her in great contemplation, the pose of a fellow artist and intellectual. Westhoff holds a rose, indicating her own love of beauty, which also highlights the hands she used to make her own art. Although she often employed bright colors, for this portrait Modersohn-Becker chose a muted palette, which gives the piece a very serious tone. The simple, naturalistic colors are also somewhat sculptural, again alluding to the subject's own art. Modersohn-Becker employs large, expressive brushstrokes throughout her work, adding to the rich emotionality of her paintings. During her short life, Modersohn-Becker was recognized for her talent and vision, and is known to have had an influence on Picasso. In November of 1907 she gave birth to a daughter, Mathilde, however she developed and embolism in her leg and sadly died at age thirty-one. Today, her significant contributions are fairly well recognized and the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum was the first museum in the world to be dedicated to a female painter.