Modersohn-Becker, Paula: Self-Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Anniversary (1906)

The Independent's Great Art series


Also in this article:



About the artist

She stands there, naked to the waist, a young woman with big cow-brown eyes meeting the viewer's gaze. Her auburn hair is parted in the centre and swept up into a chignon, while her head is held on one side like that of a quizzical blackbird listening. Her eyes are level with those of the viewer, for the artist has portrayed herself life-size, as if painting her reflection in a mirror. Her smile is restrained and confident, yet knowing. A skirt of white cloth is tied loosely around her hips as she clutches her, apparently, pregnant stomach with raw, workman-like hands. Her right arm frames her upper body in a protective curve, while the left seems to protect her lower abdomen. Together they form an "S" that breaks the S-shaped stance of the otherwise static, slightly monumental pose. Around her neck she wears a necklace of lozenge-shaped yellow amber beads that glows warmly against her bare skin and falls between her breasts, close to her heart.

Her face has something of the land about it. The nose is broad, the cheeks rosy, the lips full and red. Yet for a pregnant woman, her breasts are still small and pert, the nipples and surrounding areola not darkened or swollen. The top of the cloth around her hips is level with her lower hand. Ethereal and white, yet with a tinge of blue, it is reminiscent of the loincloth that covers Christ in countless paintings of the Crucifixion, and seems to suggest some sort of spiritual sacrifice on the part of the artist.

The young German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker painted this, one of her most subtle and emotionally complex self-portraits, on the occasion of her sixth wedding anniversary, as she has written in olive-green paint in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. She has signed it "PB", for Paula Becker, her maiden name, leaving out the Modersohn, which she had acquired on marriage.

Paula Modersohn-Becker was 30 when she painted this self-portrait on 25 May 1906. She had recently left her native Germany to live and work in Paris. What was extraordinary about this move was that, at the time, she was married to Otto Modersohn, an academic painter some 10 years her senior, whom she had met when she lived in an artist's colony at Worpswede, on the moors in northern Germany, near Bremen. There, her fellow-artists, encouraged by Julius Langbehn's eccentric and now notorious book, Rembrandt as Educator, along with their interest in Nietzsche, Zola, Rembrandt and Drer, idealistically embraced nature, the purity of youth and the simplicity of peasant life.

In Worpswede, Paula not only came under Modersohn's influence but also fell in love with the dark moors and the peasants who inhabited them, making their modest living from cutting peat. Yet she was soon to realise, rather like Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, that she had to break free of the shackles of conventional matrimony in order to develop as a serious painter. So, very unusually for a young, well-bred woman of that period, she abandoned her husband, much against his wishes, to go to Paris to paint. There she joined her close friend, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, with whom she shared a complex relationship with the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

This painting, then, is not simply a nude self-portrait but a declaration of liberation. Not only from the ties and duties of marriage, but also from the constraints and expectations of Paula's time and class. As she wrote in a letter to Rilke before leaving for Paris: "I am myself..." For she has painted herself as blooming and quietly exhalant, set against a dappled surround of spring leaf-green. Here she is her own woman, on the brink of fulfilling her true potential, at one with herself. When she arrived in Paris, she wrote: "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."

In fact, Paula was not pregnant in this painting. Only the previous month she had written that she did not want to have a child yet, particularly with Otto. The painting, then, is a metaphor for how she felt about herself as a young artist: fecund, ripe, able for the first time in her life to create and paint freely in the manner that she wished. What she is about to give birth to is not a child but her mature, independent, artistic self. Traditionally, nude portraits of women had been painted for the delectation of the male gaze, but here Paula creates a new construct: a woman who is able to nurture herself outside the trappings of marriage, who does not need a man to be fulfilled.

For there had always been an unequal relationship between the male painter (however radical and avant-garde) and his model and muse. Women were sex objects, and models were purchased in a financial exchange that, by definition, privileged the male painter. In this portrait, Modersohn-Becker confounded this norm simply by painting herself.

Her nudity is confident and unabashed. Implicit is a level of self- awareness, for Paula would not have been unfamiliar with the debates about the unconscious that were raging in Vienna around Freud, and beginning to infiltrate both art and literature. The solid monumentality of the pose, the flattened forms and stripping away of detail indicate her awareness of both Gauguin and Czanne, whose work she discovered in Paris between 1899 and 1906. Both of these artists had a huge effect on their peers. The mask-like features and Paula's easy, natural sexuality show not only a familiarity with their work but also an awareness of the "primitive" art that had so inspired them and other painters of the time, from Nolde to Picasso. She stands there in her amber necklace, just as Gauguin might have portrayed one of his Tahitian girls garlanded with tropical flowers. For, like Gauguin, she was seeking the expression of some primordial power in the natural world.

Yet, for Paula Modersohn-Becker, in this self-portrait and its companion painting, Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace (1906), there is no subtext of violence or the sexual exploitation and appropriation that can be read into some of Gauguin's colonised Tahitian nudes with their blank expressions or downcast eyes. What she portrays is the solid dignity of the earth-mother, the liberated woman painted with a direct and fearless gaze.

She gives birth to the expression of her new fearless, artistic self. She was among the very first women painters to explore these concerns. That she collapsed with an embolism and died just weeks after the birth of her daughter, a mere year later, in 1907, gives the painting a haunting poignancy.

The artist

Born in Dresden in 1876, Paula Modersohn-Becker was 12 when her family moved to Bremen. In 1892, she received her first drawing instruction, and a year later came to England to learn English. In 1877, she saw an exhibition at Bremen's Kunsthalle by the members of the "Worpsweders" commune, artists who lived on the moors outside Bremen and took the French Barbizon school as their model, rejecting city life.

In 1896, she studied at the Society of Berlin Women Artists. She became close friends with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, but married Otto Modersohn and settled in Worpswede. She later left him to live and work in Paris, where she immersed herself in French art. A reconciliation of sorts led her back to Worpswede, where, in 1907, aged 31, she died of an embolism after the birth of her daughter.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker