Google is honoring Paula Modersohn-Becker’s 142nd birthday with a Google Doodle today, February 8. The painter revolutionized the art world, eschewed traditional limits put on women painters, and produced art at a feverish rate of as many as 80 pictures a year — as if her personal time was running out. And it was: Modersohn-Becker died at the age of 31. She was born on February 8, 1876 and died November 21, 1907. Known as one of the most important representatives of early expressionism, the German painted is sometimes referred to as the “missing piece” in modern art. Some still wonder how much more she could have revolutionized modern art if she had lived longer, considering how much groundbreaking work she did in such a short period of time. She, Picasso, and Matisse introduced the world to modernism and her work is still admired to this day, along with her courage and ambition. She was bold — among the first women artists to depict nude females or breastfeeding women. She defied the expectations put on women artists and carved her own path. But despite how much she changed the art world, she only sold three paintings during her lifetime. Here’s what you need to know about Paula Modersohn-Becker.
1. Her Marriage Was Tumultuous at Times, But She Clung to Her Paintings No Matter What Happened
She met her future husband at Worpswede, but she wasn’t going to even let the “love of her” life distract her from her calling. She had made her first trip to Paris in 1900 and felt drawn to the city. She urged him to join her in Paris, where she moved to further pursue her art. At the time when they first met, Otto Modersohn was married and his wife was ill. He wasn’t that interested in modern art, but after his wife passed away, he moved to Paris and they got engaged.
But being engaged and married weren’t easy for Modersohn-Becker, The Guardian explained. Her family sent her to a cooking school for two months. Her father encouraged her to forget her art pursuits when she became a wife. But she wouldn’t do that. She once wrote: “Marriage does not make one happier. It takes away the illusion that had sustained a deep belief in a kindred soul.”
Modersohn supported his wife for a time, but he soon was upset by her paintings, disliked her angular faces, and wasn’t happy about her housekeeping either. For a time, husband and wife seemed to be happiest when they were apart. And at the age of 30, Modersohn-Becker left her husband. She had an affair, The New Yorker reported, but that man was a well-known ladies man who believed a woman’s reason for being was to procreate.
In September, she and her husband reunited, closer than before. That’s when Modersohn-Becker became the first woman to paint a naked self portrait, and she did so while she was pregnant in 1906.
2. Tragically, She Died of an Embolism Shortly After Giving Birth
Modersohn-Becker’s reunion with her husband and the joy of being a mom were short-lived. She gave birth to her daughter Mathilde in November 1907, after two days of labor. She was then ordered to stay in bed for 18 days. When she could finally resume a normal life again, her family planned a small party for her. She dressed up: her hair was braided and she pinned a rose to her housecoat, The Guardian reported. But then as she got out of bed, she collapsed and died from a pulmonary embolism. (Other reports, such as The New Yorker, say that she went into another room after she was told she could get out of bed, asked for the baby, complained about the pain in her leg again, and then died.) Both accounts say that as she died, she simply said: “What a pity.”
Some said she had an embolism because she had been in bed for too long. Even while in bed, she complained about pain in her legs, The New Yorker reported. This is often how pulmonary embolisms start: in the legs and then travel to the heart and lungs.
3. She Felt Like She Wasted the First 20 Years of Her Life, And Only Sold Three Paintings While Alive
Why did she work at such a feverish rate near the end of her life, sometimes producing a painting every four or five days? Her main reasoning was that she felt like she had wasted the first 20 years of her life and needed to catch up.
She grew up in Dresden-Friedrichstadt and began her artistic pursuits when she studied at Bremen, starting to seriously draw when she was 16. She studied in England at St. John’s Wood School of Art. But then she returned to Germany to complete her teacher training, while also taking painting classes, and didn’t feel that teaching was the right fit for her. By 18, thanks to an inheritance, she moved to an artist’s colony in Worpswede. She studied under Fritz Mackensen, and it was after this that she met her husband and traveled back and forth to Paris.
Even during her lifetime, Modersohn-Becker knew that she was unconventional and breaking the norms. She once wrote, “I’m doing what nobody else has done; I’m seeing it, I’ve got it.” If she hadn’t died, she had planned to go to Italy.
Her work wasn’t recognized until long after she had died. In fact, she only sold three paintings during her lifetime. At that time, her contemporaries (and even those shortly after she died) didn’t always recognize the groundbreaking nature of her work or her defiance of a conventional life. In 1932, two Nazis pointed out that her nude paintings were examples of a degenerate life. In fact, she only really started to become known in the 1920s in Europe after her letters and diaries were published. But her paintings were edgier than her letters, The New Yorker reported, so for a time people were unsure what to do with that.
4. Paula Was Not Pregnant When She Painted the Nude Self-Portrait
The Independent reported that, ironically, Modersohn-Becker wasn’t actually pregnant yet when she painted her nude self-portrait, portraying herself as a pregnant woman, and broke so many constraints against female painters. She made the painting on May 25, 1906 (and gave birth in November 1907.) So yes, she did get pregnant not too long after making this portrait, but she wasn’t pregnant at the time it was made.
The portrait was made around the time of her sixth wedding anniversary, when she had left Germany — and her husband — to go back to Paris. This was around the time she had the affair and they were separated. She wrote when she arrived in Paris: “Now I have left Otto Modersohn, I stand between my old life and my new one. What will happen in my new life? And how shall I develop in my new life? Everything must happen now.”
Her painting was a metaphor, The Independent explained, for how she felt that she was able to create the life she now wanted and be independent. She was giving birth to her new self.
5. The First Museum in the World Dedicated to a Female Artist Honors Her
Despite not being known in her lifetime, she’s very well known today. In fact, the Paula Modersohn-Becker museum in Bremen, Germany was created in her honor. And fitting to her groundbreaking nature, that museum was the first museum in the world wholly dedicated to a female artist. The museum was opened in 1927 and is now considered one of the key works of expressionist architecture. It features her entire career, including pictures of her spanning her lifetime. In 1935, Nazis attacked the art. Hitler even declared it a monument of degenerate art. But the museum lived on. Since 2005, Jenny Holzer’s homage to Paula has been placed permanently in the stairwell.
In addition to this museum, Paula’s house in Bremen was opened in 2007 as a private art museum and gallery. Paula’s first studio was in this house.