Minna Hermine Paula Becker is born in Dresden on 8th February as the third of
seven children. Her father, Carl Woldemar Becker (Odessa, 31.1.1841 – Bremen, 30.11.1901), works as construction and operations inspector for the Berlin-Dresden railway, and later as construction manager of the Prussian Railway Administration in Bremen. Her mother, Mathilde Becker (Lübeck, 3.11.1852 – Bremen, 22.1.1926), comes from an aristocratic family von Bültzingslöwen.
The Becker family moves to Bremen and immediately takes a keen interest in the city's literary and artistic life.
Paula Becker spends seven months in England, staying with her father’s sister,
Marie Hill, on a country estate near London. She takes her first lessons in drawing from plaster models at the “St. John’s Wood Art School”.
“I shall have lessons there every day from ten until four. At first, I shall only be drawing, beginning with very simple arabesques and other designs. If I progress, then I shall make charcoal sketches after Greek plaster casts. [...] If I advance further, I shall begin drawing and painting from live models.” (To her parents, 21.10.1892).
In accordance with her father’s wish to render his daughter economically independent, Paula Becker continues her education at the seminar for women teachers in Bremen; she completes the training on 18.9.1895. Parallel to this, she takes painting and drawing lessons.
“I am having such splendid lessons with Wiegandt. I am working from live models, in charcoal. [...] Ever since, I have been drawing my own faithful reflection in the mirror.” (To her brother, Kurt Becker, 26.4.1893).
In April 1895, Paula Becker sees the first exhibition of works by the Worpswede
painters in the Kunsthalle Bremen. She mentions Fritz Mackensen, Otto Modersohn,
and Heinrich Vogeler.
“You must have also heard of the Sermon on the Heath, which one of them, a man named Mackensen, painted while sitting in a glass wagon. [...] Naturally, everything is extremely realistic, but it is still
wonderful. The only thing I cannot completely understand is the perspective.
[...] the whole scene seems to slope away as if it were falling? I wonder if that is the way things really are or whether the way we foreshorten perspective is just something that has been artificially trained in us.” (To her brother Kurt Becker, 27.4.1895).
In April/May she attends a course at the school of drawing and painting of the
“Verein der Berliner Künstlerinnen und Kunstfreundinnen” in Berlin, which was founded in 1867.
“Four afternoons a week are devoted to drawing instructions, which completely occupy my thoughts. [...] Whenever I talk with somebody I try hard to see just what kind of shadow his or her nose casts, or how the deep shadow under a certain cheekbone starts out and then gradually blends into the highlights. This gradual blending is the hardest thing for me to capture. I am still drawing shadows much too distinctly. Instead of emphasizing what is important I find that I am trivializing. [...] My heads are still too wooden, too stiff.” (To her parents, 23.4.1896).
“When I make my pilgrimage down the Potsdamerstraße on my way to drawing school, I study the thousand faces that pass me by and I try with a glance to discover the essential thing about each of them. [...] Then I try to see everything in two dimensions, to dissolve curved lines into angular lines.” (Journal [?], prior to 18.5.1896).
In October, she begins an eighteen months training period at the same
school: she attends the portrait class of Jacob Alberts and Martin Körte, the life drawing class of Ernst Friedrich Hausmann and takes landscape lessons with Ludwig Dettmann.
She lives in the house of her uncle, Wulf von Bültzingslöwen, in Berlin-Schlachtensee and uses her free time to pursue her studies in the museums.
“I am becoming very familiar with the German masters now, and with Holbein – but Rembrandt still remains the
greatest.” (To her parents, 23.4.1896) She spends her summer vacations in
Hindelang and visits the Pinakothek and the Schackgalerie in Munich on her way
In February, Paula Becker enters the painting class of Jeanna Bauck, where
she paints mainly portraits.
“I love oil colours. They are so rich and powerful, so wonderful to work with after those shy pastels. [...] Yesterday I began working in oils under Hausmann, too. He has us work so differently from Jeanna Bauck. While she teaches us to work down from the brightest tones, taking white as the norm, he has us work up from the darkest tones, from shadows. The deeper the shadows, the brighter the saturated light must be. Rembrandt got such fantastic effects from light. All that came from the depth of his shadows. Living
skin in daylight is so dazzling, so luminous, that it’s nearly impossible to paint it bright enough.” (To her parents, 14.5.1897).
She often visits art exhibitions at the galleries of Schulte, Gurlitt, and Keller & Reiner. In the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett, she sees drawings by Michelangelo and Botticelli’s illustrations for Dante’s
“Divine Comedy”. From the end of July to the end of August, she stays in Worpswede for the first time, together with her friend, the paintress Paula Ritter.
“Today I painted my first plein air portrait at the clay pit, a little blond and blue-eyed girl. The way the little thing stood in the yellow sand was simply beautiful–a bright and shimmering thing to see. It made my heart leap. Painting people is indeed more beautiful than painting a landscape.” (To her parents, Worpswede, August 1897), and “This morning I was painting an old man from the poorhouse. It went very well. He sat there like a stick with the grey sky as background.” (To her parents, late August 1897).
She sets up a studio for herself in an old stable building at her parents’ house on Schwachhauser Chaussee for the summer months. Her brothers and sisters sit for her as models.
At the beginning of October she travels to Dresden for the “Internationale
Kunstausstellung” with works by Carrière, Degas, Ensor, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley as well as Böcklin, Hodler, Kalckreuth, Klinger, Leibl, Liebermann, Segantini and the Worpswede artists.
In early December, she travels to Vienna for the wedding of her cousin Lily Stammann to sculptor Carl Bernewitz. She visits the museums and the Liechtenstein gallery, mentioning Moretto, Titian, Rubens, Dürer, Cranach, Holbein, Leonardo and van Dyck.
Continuation of her studies in Berlin. She sees an exhibition of artist lithographs at the Lichthof of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, where – amongst others – works by Puvis de Chavannes, Manet, Pissarro, Redon, Renoir, Sérusier, Toulouse-Lautrec, Valloton and Munch are shown. She sees works by Rippl-Rónai at Gurlitt’s gallery and at the Schulte gallery an exhibition of the “Elfer”, i.e. predecessors of the Berlin Secession as Liebermann, Alberts, von Hofmann and Klinger, – she mentions Leistikow in her letters. A Munch exhibition takes place at Keller & Reiner in April. On a trip to Leipzig, Paula Becker visits Klinger’s studio.
At the end of May, she ends her studies in Berlin.
In June/July, she travels to Norway with her uncle Wulf von Bültzingslöwen.
In September, she moves to Worpswede. On her first evening in Worpswede she
writes to her aunt Cora von Bültzingslöwen:
“I am savouring my life with every breath I draw, and in the distance Paris gleams and shimmers. I truly believe that my most secret and ardent wish is going to come true.” (7.9.1898).
Friendship with the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who will marry Rainer Maria
Rilke in 1901. She is taught by Fritz Mackensen, who has already accepted Clara Westhoff and Marie Bock as pupils. She produces lifesize charcoal and red chalk drawings.
“Every few days Mackensen comes over to give me his excellent critique.” (Journal, 18.10.1898). As Ottilie Reylaender
recalls: “[...] the large nude study she had begun was on the easel. Mackensen corrected her, asking with a sharp look whether she really saw what she had done there in nature itself. Her answer was a strange one: a quick ‘yes’ and then a hesitant ‘no’, while apparently gazing into the distance.” (Ottilie Reylaender-Böhme, in: Hetsch 1932, p. 34).
Besides the life-size drawings from models, her sketchbooks are filling up
with landscape drawings, figure studies and composition drafts. She completes
her first paintings as well as a number of etchings, which she prints using the
hand press at Vogeler’s home, “Barkenhoff”.
As a letter to her parents indicates, she regards Worpswede merely as a temporary place to stay in order to advance her studies:
“I believe that I’ll grow away from here. Those with whom I can stand to speak about things close to my heart and feelings are becoming fewer and fewer.” (12.2.1899).
As from June, she keeps a human skeleton in her studio for anatomical studies.
She reads a lot, classic literature but above all J.P. Jacobsen and Henrik Ibsen. In August, she travels to Switzerland with her aunt Marie Hill. The return journey takes them to Munich, Nuremberg and Leipzig, where Clara Westhoff
is working with Klinger, as well as to Dresden to the “Deutsche Kunstausstellung”, in which the Worpswede painters are represented with 22 paintings. In December, together with Marie Bock and Clara Westhoff, she exhibits some studies in the Kunsthalle Bremen, which receive an annihilating review from painter and critic Arthur Fitger. He declares their works as showing a “wretched lack of talent.” (Review from the Weser Zeitung
(Bremen), 20. December 1899).
The night of New Year’s Eve, Paula Becker travels to Paris for the first time. There she meets Clara Westhoff, who wishes to study at the school of sculpture set up by Rodin. Initially, the two of them live in the Grand Hôtel de la Haute Loire at 203, Boulevard Raspail. At the end of January, Paula Becker moves to 9, Rue Campagne Première. She studies at the private Académie Colarossi in Rue de la Grande Chaumière and attends the life drawing class. “The critiques seem to be objective and good. One does not work life-size here, but in the same format as in Berlin.” (To her parents, 11.1.1900).
“I have registered for a morning course in
life drawing. At the beginning of each week Girardot or Collins come and criticize the accuracy of our work. Toward the end of the week, Courtois comes and criticizes primarily the more picturesque aspects of what we have done,
tonal values etc. [...] In the afternoon there is a course in croquis also from the nude in which for two hours we draw models in four different poses. This is very constructive for understanding movement.” (To her father, 18.1.1900). In addition, she and Clara Westhoff attend the free anatomy
lessons at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. “In anatomy class, we are now learning about the construction of muscles in the human body. Two live models and a corpse are used for demonstration purposes. It’s extremely interesting, but unfortunately the sight of the corpse, and never fails to give me a headache.” (To her parents, 22.1.1900).
Paula Becker wins the “concours” of her semester. “So, I have a medal and am now a big wig in the school. All four professors voted for me.” (To her parents, 3.3.1900).
She is very impressed by paintings of Cézanne, which she discovers, still standing on the floor at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, at 6, Rue Lafitte, after the exhibition in December.
“One day she ordered me to join her on a walk along the opposite bank of the Seine, because she wanted to show me something special there. She led me to the art dealer Vollard and in his shop she began– since no one disturbed us – to turn around the paintings leaning
against the wall and to select some with great certainty, which had a new, intense simplicity resembling Paula’s own approach. These were paintings by Cézanne, which we were both seeing for the first time. We had never even heard his name before. Paula had discovered him in her own particular way, and she regarded this discovery as an unexpected confirmation of her own artistic searching.” (Clara Rilke-Westhoff, in: Hetsch 1932, p. 43).
During her frequent visits to the Louvre, she copies paintings and sculptures into a sketchbook, which she continues to use until 1906. In her letters she mentions Titian, Botticelli, Fiesole (Fra Angelico), Velázquez, Rembrandt, Holbein, della Robbia, and Donatello and among the more recent masters: Corot, Rousseau, Millet, Daubigny, Degas, Puvis de Chavannes,
Courbet, and Monet. In an exhibition at Georges Petit’s gallery, she sees
works by the Breton painters Simon as well as by Cottet, whom she visits in his
studio. In March a comprehensive exhibition of Seurat takes place in the rooms
of the “Revue Blanche”. She meets Emil Nolde and Emmi Walther, a paintress from Dachau, and visits the world exposition and Rodin’s sculpture pavilion at the Pont de l’Alma. In June, Otto Modersohn,
Fritz and Hermine Overbeck and Marie Bock from Worpswede travel to
Paris to visit Paula Becker. During their visit to Paris, Otto Modersohn’s
wife Helene dies in Worpswede. Paula Becker returns to Worpswede at
the end of June and rents a space with the farmer Brünjes in Ostendorf. She has the walls painted in bright colours: ultramarine at the bottom and turquoise at the top, separated by a band of redbrown.
Until her final days, this coloured division of the wall often forms the background to her still-life works and figurative compositions. Rilke also refers to the rooms with Brünjes as the “lily studio” due to a fabric hanging on the wall with a bourbon lily. On Sundays the group of friends meets in the “Weißer Saal” at Vogeler’s “Barkenhoff”: Otto Modersohn and Paula Becker, Heinrich
Vogeler and his future wife Martha Schröder, Clara Westhoff, Marie Bock,
and Paula’s sisters Milly and Herma. The poets Carl Hauptmann and Rainer Maria Rilke are frequent guests. On 12th September Paula Becker and Otto Modersohn become engaged. In October, she rents a studio next to Otto Modersohn’s house, previously used by Ottilie Reylaender, who is leaving for Paris. Apart from a few figurative works, Paula Becker is almost exclusively painting landscapes now.