Artist Paula Modersohn-Becker’s portraits were ahead of their time | Arts & Culture

Half-length portrait of a peasant, his head resting on his right hand
Half-length portrait of a peasant, his head resting on his right hand, oil temperature on cardboard, approx. 1903. The artist created the work on an art colony in Germany.
© Museumsbund Nordfriesland, Husum / Germany: Photo: Sönke Ehlert

Her career lasted only a decade, but Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) painted more than 500 canvases, including evocative landscapes, quirky self-portraits, and careful studies of children, the elderly, and the residents of a local slum. She approached herself with her most humble subjects with a rare respect, says Ingrid Pfeiffer, curator of a new retrospective at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, which can be seen until February. “She gave value to every person she painted,” Pfeiffer says. Yet her intense, unsentimental depictions of people in the countryside did not appeal to art buyers at the end of the Victorian era. During her life, Modersohn-Becker, whose upper-middle-class Bremen family encouraged her artistic education in London, Berlin, and Paris, sold only four paintings. It was only after she died as a 31-year-old of complications at birth that her work began to find an audience. Today, she is considered a pioneer in the artistic movement that would become known as Expressionism, with a style that was several years ahead of her contemporaries. “I’m still an incomplete person and would love to be someone,” she wrote. “Again, I also feel that whoever thinks of me as incomplete does not really need to look in my direction.”

Artist Paula Modersohn-Becker's portraits were ahead of their time

Self-portrait with red flower wreath and chain, 1906-07.

Lower Saxony Statsmuseum Hannover, Rutund Klaus Bahlsen Fonden, © Statsmuseet Hannover – ARTOTHEK

Artist Paula Modersohn-Becker's portraits were ahead of their time

old peasant wife, 1905

Detroit Institute of Arts, © Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Robert H. Tannahill

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