Paula Modersohn-Becker. Selbstbildnis als Halbakt mit Bernsteinkette II. 1906. Kunstmuseum Basil.
Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) was a young German artist who created 600 paintings and over 1000 sketches in her brief career at the beginning of the 20th century. She lived and worked in Worpswede, an artist enclave in rural Germany that resisted artistic domination of academics and urbanism. Nevertheless, Modersohn-Becker sojourned several times to Paris, where she studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and was influenced deeply by the work of Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Many of her best-known paintings, including the portrait of Rainier Maria Rilke and this self-portrait, were painted in Paris in 1906. She was one of the first artists to paint nude self-portraits.
Paula Becker met Rilke in Worpswede in 1900 when both were 24 years old. He fell in love with her, not knowing that she already was betrothed to fellow artist Otto Modersohn. They married a year later, and Rilke married Paula’s best friend, sculptor Clara Westhoff. The four friends called themselves “the Family” for a time in Worpswede, although they soon separated to pursue turbulent artists’ lives. Paula and Rilke maintained a deeply spiritual friendship. He was a frequent visitor to her Paris studio in 1906. Rilke was devastated by her untimely death a year later following the birth of her child. His grief eventually led to one of his greatest poems, Requiem for a Friend.
From Requiem for a Friend
I will have the gardeners come to me and recite many flowers, and in their small melodious names I will bring back some remnant of the hundred fragrances. And fruits: I will buy fruits, and in their sweetness that country’s earth and sky will live, again. For that is what you understood: ripe fruits. You set them before the canvas, in white bowls, and weighed out each one’s heaviness with your colors. Women too, you saw, were fruits; and children, molded from inside, into the shapes of their existence. And at last you saw yourself as a fruit, you stepped out of your clothes and brought your naked body before the mirror, you let yourself inside down to your gaze; which stayed in front, immense, and didn’t say: I am that; no: this is. So free of curiosity your gaze had become, so unpossessive, of such true poverty, it had no desire even for your yourself; it wanted nothing: holy.
Rainier Maria Rilke
Hotel Biron, Paris 1908