Paula Modersohn-Becker was just thirty-one when she died, her life tragically cut short in 1907 due to complications after childbirth. Born in Germany in 1876, she had already established herself as a pioneering figure in the early expressionist art movement, and the hundreds of paintings she left behind attest to her remarkable talent and vision. She painted across genres, from landscapes and still lifes to portraits and self-portraits. As her career developed, she devoted much of her time and creativity to the latter, and today, it’s these unabashedly honest portrayals of the female form that she is most celebrated for. Alongside her artistic output, Modersohn-Becker left a rich literary legacy through her personal letters and journals, and it’s thanks to these that we have gained such an invaluable insight into the woman behind the art.
The Diary Entry
Worpswede, July 26, 1900
As I was painting today, some thoughts came to me and I want to write them down for the people I love. I know that I shall not live very long. But I wonder, is that sad? Is a celebration more beautiful because it lasts longer? And my life is a celebration, a short, intense celebration. My powers of perception are becoming finer, as if I were supposed to absorb everything in the few years that are still to be offered me, everything. My sense of smell is unbelievably keen at present. With almost every breath I take, I get a new sense and understanding of the linden tree, of ripened wheat, of hay, and of mignonette. I suck everything up into me. And if only now love would blossom for me, before I depart, and if I can paint three good pictures, then I shall go gladly, with flowers in my hair. It makes me happy again as it did when I was a child, to weave wreathes of flowers. When it’s warm and I’m tired, I sit down and weave a yellow garland, a blue one, and one of thyme.
I was thinking today about a picture of girls playing music under a cloud-covered sky, in gray and green tones, the girls white, gray, and muted red.
A reaper in a blue smock. He mows down all the little flowers in front of my door. I think that perhaps I, too, will not last much longer. I know now of two other pictures with Death in them; I wonder if perhaps I shall still get to paint them?
A selection of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s letters and journals, titled Briefe und Tagebuchblåtter, were first published in German in 1917, ten years after her death, but it would be another sixty-three years until a definitive collection was published. In 1983, that fuller edition was translated into English and edited by Arthur S. Wensinger and Carole Clew Hoey, published by Taplinger with the title Paula Modersohn-Becker: The Letters and Journals.