Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Nears


Melozzo da Flori (Italian Renaissance artist, 1438-1494) Angel from the Vault of the Sacristy of Saint Mark  January 29, 2011. "Without Melozzo, the work of Raphael and Michelangelo would have never existed.” This statement by Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, sums up the impact this renaissance painter had on some of the greatest Italian painters.

In many western Christian religions, Advent is a time of expectant waiting, self-examination, & preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas.


Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes (Canadian artist, 1859–1912) Christmas Tree


Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes (Canadian artist, 1859–1912)  Christmas Tree


The Christmas Tree...




"Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood & decorated them with evergreens & candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room & wired its branches with lighted candles."


The earliest American image of a Christmas tree by John Lewis Krimmel (German-born American artist,1786-1821) who was painting in Pennsylvania 



















Martin Luther and Family in Wittenberg at Christmas 1536 in Wheat Sheaf  as imagined in 1853 Philadelphia

In the early part of the 19C, "Most...Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols & not accepted by most Americans."

"It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German & Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy."

"In 1846, the English royals, Queen Victoria & her German Prince, Albert, were featured in an engraving in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, & what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived."


John Whetten Ehninger, American, 1827–1889. Harper's Bazaar, published 1 January 1870.

"By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany & Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. Generally Europeans used small trees about 4 feet in height, while Americans eventually came to prefer their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling."


Christmas in Orson Reynolds House ca. 1880, Reynoldston, NY

"The early 20C saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, & marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors & interlaced with berries & nuts."

Julian Alden Weir (American artist, 1852-1919)  The Christmas Tree 1890

See History.com for text segments in quotation marks.


The Christmas Poinsettia


I considered writing a history of the traditional Christmas poinsettia plant this year, but then I remembered the 2011 myth-breaking article by Joel T Fry, of Bartam's Garden in Philadelphia. I could not do a better history than his, so I will present it here.  See his original here.


America's First Poinsettia: Poinsettia's first public display was in 1829 at the PHS Flower Show - by Joel T. Fry - 12/12/2011

"It is a little known fact that the poinsettia was introduced to the gardening world from the Bartram Botanic Garden in 1829. This international symbol of winter cheer was first successfully grown outside its Mexican homeland by Robert and Ann Bartram Carr at the Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia.

The plant now known as poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, is native to the pacific coast of Mexico and has an ancient history of human use. It was almost certainly seen by early European explorers and colonists, but somehow never entered cultivation in Europe. It was re-discovered or at least brought to the attention of the outside world in the 1820s by an American, Joel Roberts Poinsett (1778-1851).


"Poinsett, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, held various diplomatic and political positions through his life, but always continued a strong interest in natural science and horticulture. He first served as a special envoy to Mexico in 1822-1823, and when the new Mexican Republic was recognized in 1824, Poinsett was first U. S. Minister Plenipotentiary. He resided in Mexico from 1825 to early 1830. During this period, perhaps in the winter of 1827-1828 Poinsett encountered the unnamed plant that now bears his name.


"As part of his mission to expand cooperation between the two countries, Poinsett shipped plants and seeds between Mexico and the United States. At present there is evidence that four different collections of seeds and plants were sent from Mexico to Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia in the period 1828-1829. Poinsett was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in early 1827, and this seems to have cemented his connection with the Philadelphia scientific community and with Bartram’s Garden .In early 1828, William Maclure, a longtime friend of Poinsett, and Thomas Say, a Bartram nephew, travelled to Mexico, visiting Vera Cruz and Mexico City. William Keating, a geologist from the University of Pennsylvania also traveled to Mexico in 1828 to prospect for American mining interests. Poinsett, Maclure, Say, and Keating all arranged for Mexican seeds of plants to be sent to Bartram’s Garden.


"Thomas Say sent over a hundred varieties of seeds from Mexico, “of my own collecting” in a letter to Robert Carr dated July 23, 1828. This list is in large part made up of fruits and vegetables offered in the markets in Mexico, but some trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants from the wild were included, notably several forms of cactus. William Maclure returned briefly to Philadelphia in the fall of 1828, and he brought yet more Mexican seeds and plants with him. This is the most likely route for plants of the poinsettia to Bartram’s Garden.



"Robert Buist, a Philadelphia nurseryman, remembered seeing the first poinsettia roots unpacked at Bartram’s Garden in 1828: “On my arrival in this country from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, in 1828, I paid a visit to the famed “Bartram Botanic Garden,” and there saw two cases of plants which had just arrived from Mexico. Among the contents were the stumps of a strange-looking Euphorbia, which, after a few months’ growth, showed some very brilliant crimson bracts.” (The young Buist soon built a very successful career on the new scarlet plant, and as a result he was credited with the introduction of the poinsettia to Europe in 1834.)

"The paper trail of the poinsettia next appears at “The first semi-annual Exhibition of fruits, flowers and plants, of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society,” held June 6, 1829. This was the first public show of the PHS, a tradition continued today as the Philadelphia Flower Show. One of the noteworthy exhibits was “A new Euphorbia with bright scarlet bracteas or floral leaves, presented to the Bartram collection by Mr. Poinsett, United States Minister to Mexico.” There can be no doubt that this was the poinsettia, now known as Euphorbia pulcherrima. The plant on display, apparently the original sent from Mexico, was still colorful in early June. And while we now take for granted the connection of poinsettias and Christmas, it would take a while for nurserymen to reliably flower the new scarlet plant in time for the early winter holidays.


"A year later, in July 1830 a committee of the PHS, “For visiting the Nurseries and Gardens in the vicinity of Philadelphia,” made particular note of the “Euphorbia heterophylla, with its large scarlet flowers,” as well as “some curious species of Cactus, lately received from Mexico” at the Bartram Botanic Garden. At this early stage, the appropriate scientific name for the poinsettia was still in doubt. Poinsettia resembled a known North American native, Euphorbia heterophylla and so for a time it was referred to under that name. Philadelphia nurserymen also used the name “Poinsett’s euphorbia” and around 1832 Robert Buist began using “Euphorbia poinsettia” for the new plant. Between 1833 and 1836 the poinsettia went through a rapid series of scientific names as it was described and published in the US and Europe—first Pleuradena coccinea, then Poinsettia pulcherima, and finally Euphorbia pulcherima. (Although there is still some debate whether some North American Euphorbia species should be split off into a new genus Poinsettia.)


"In the summer of 1833, the botanist Constantine Rafinesque published the first scientific description of the poinsettia in Philadelphia, for his Atlantic Journal. Rafinesque recorded the brief history of the plant in Philadelphia to date: “The Botanical Garden of Bartram received some years ago from Mr. Poinsett our ambassador in Mexico, a fine new green-house shrub, akin to Euphorbia, with splendid scarlet blossoms, or rather bracts. It has since been spread in our gardens near Philadelphia, and is know in some as the Euphorbia Poinseti; but appears to me to form a peculiar genus or S. G. at least”


"In the early 1830s Robert Buist began sending plants or cuttings of poinsettia to Europe, and particularly to his friend James McNab at the Edinburgh Botanic Garden. Buist had trained at the Edinburgh garden, and he returned to Scotland in 1831 to acquire stock for his new nursery business. James McNab also visited Philadelphia, and Bartram’s Garden in the summer of 1834, and probably took the first successful poinsettia plants back with him to Edinburgh in the fall.


"The poinsettia flowered in Edinburgh for the first time in the spring of 1835, but imperfectly. When it flowered again in 1836 it was drawn for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. The new euphorbia was re-named Poinsettia pulcherrima by Robert C. Graham, Regius Professor of Botany at Edinburgh, in an article prepared both for Curtis’s and the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal. The modern common name “poinsettia” arose from Graham’s description, and as the plant spread rapidly in cultivation in the UK and Europe it was known under the name poinsettia. Unfortunately for history, Graham relied on Buist’s own incorrect account of the introduction of the plant, and omitted any mention of the Carrs or Bartram’s Garden. (Graham’s new genus Poinsettia has since been returned to Euphorbia.)


"It has long been the story that Poinsett personally introduced the poinsettia first to Charleston, bringing the plant on his return from Mexico, and from there it was discovered or sent to the Carrs in Philadelphia. This is impossible for the poinsettia was shown to the Philadelphia public in June of 1829, over six months before Poinsett returned from Mexico. All available evidence suggests that the poinsettia was first sent to the Bartram Garden in Philadelphia in the fall of 1828. The successful transport of live plants from Mexico to Philadelphia in 1828 was almost certainly due to the fact that a number of friends of Bartram’s Garden were on the scene in Mexico. After the new scarlet euphorbia was introduced to the public in 1829, the plant was widely propagated, and became a popular mainstay of the Philadelphia florist trade. The young gardener, Robert Buist, returned to Europe in 1831 and found the scarlet flower was unknown. Buist was a great popularizer of the new plant, but has undeservedly received major credit for its introduction. When Poinsett began to grow his namesake plant in Charleston after his return, it probably returned to him via the Philadelphia nursery community."


 A little more to the tale...


Poinsettia plants are native to Central America, especially an area of southern Mexico known as 'Taxco del Alarcon,' where they flower during the winter. The ancient Aztecs called them 'cuetlaxochitl'. The Aztecs had many uses for them including using the flowers (actually special types of bright leaves known as bracts rather than flowers) to make a purple dye for clothes & cosmetics The milky white sap, latex, was made into a medicine to treat fevers.


Poinsettias were cultivated by the Aztecs of Mexico long before the introduction of Christianity to the Western Hemisphere. These plants were highly prized by Kings Netzahualcyotl & Montezuma, but because of climatic restrictions could not be grown in their capital, which is now Mexico City.


Perhaps the 1st religious connotations were placed on poinsettias during the 17C.  Because of its brilliant color & convenient holiday blooming time, Franciscan priests, near Taxco, began to use the flower in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession.  The poinsettia may have remained a regional plant for many years to come had it not been for the efforts of Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779 – 1851). The son of a French physician, Poinsett was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829) by President James Madison. Poinsett had attended medical school himself, but was a dedicated, almost obsessive botany-lover.


A German botanist, Wilenow, named it Euphorbia pulcherrima (most beautiful) in 1833, the correct scientific name to this day.  The common name we use today was believed to have been coined around 1836.  Philadelphia nurseryman Robert Buist 1st sold the plant as Euphorbia poinsettia, although a German botanist had already given the plant the botanical name Euphorbia pulcherima.


The Poinsettias native to southern Mexico & Mesoamerica, unlike today’s commercial cultivars, grow into straight & tall trees. Often these trees can reach heights up to 10 feet tall. Through selection & breeding by growers, many cultivars have been developed in the United States & Europe.


After its introduction in Philadelphia, the poinsettia was shipped around the country during the 1800's, usually as an outdoor plant for warm climates.  Around 1920 in southern California, a horticulturist named Paul Ecke became the next key person to promote the poinsettia.  He felt this shrub growing wild along roadsides would make a perfect Christmas flower, so set about producing these in fields in what is now Hollywood.  A few years later, due to the commercial & arts development in Hollywood, he was forced to move south to Encinitas where the Paul Ecke Ranch continues to produce poinsettias today.  Through the marketing efforts of Paul Ecke and his sons, the poinsettia has become symbolic with Christmas in the United States.  An Act of Congress has even set December 12, the death of Joel Poinsett, as National Poinsettia Day to commemorate a man and his plant.



Notes: Joel T. Fry  (B.A., Anthropology, Univ. of Penn. M.A., American Civ./Historical Archaeology, Univ. of Penn.) has served as curator for Bartram’s Garden, the home of John and William Bartram in Philadelphia, since 1992. (Bartram’s Garden, 54th Street & Lindbergh Blvd., Philadelphia, PA 19143)  Recent publications include: 

“America’s ‘Ancient Garden’: The Bartram Botanic Garden, 1728-1850” in Amy R. W. Meyers, ed., Knowing Nature: Art and Science in Philadelphia, 1740-1840. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011; 
“William Bartram’s ‘Commonplace Book’ and ‘On Gardening’ in the volume, William Bartram, The Search for Nature’s Design: Selected Art, Letters, and Unpublished Writings. Thomas Hallock, and Nancy E. Hoffmann, eds., University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 2010; 
“William Bartram’s Oenothera grandiflora: ‘The Most Pompous and Brilliant Herbaceous Plant yet Known to Exist,’” in Fields of Vision: Essays on the Travels of William Bartram, Kathryn E. Holland Braund and Charlotte M. Porter, eds. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2010; 
“Historic American Landscapes Survey, John Bartram House and Garden (Bartram’s Garden), HALS No. PA-1, History Report,” U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Washington, DC, 2004.

The Poinsettia's Philadelphia Roots


Hardy Christmas flower got its U.S. start in 1829 at the first Flower Show.



By Virginia A. Smith, The Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
December 18, 2011

"The red poinsettia has been a Christmas tradition forever, it seems. Did you know it has a historic connection to Philadelphia?

"Bartram's Garden, established on the banks of the Schuylkill around 1728 by botanist John Bartram, was the first to successfully grow the poinsettia outside its native Mexico. Bartram's officially introduced it to the American public and commercial trade at the inaugural Philadelphia Flower Show on June 6, 1829.


"At this one-day affair, the public reacted to the poinsettia and hundreds of other plants with such excitement that the show's host, the fledgling Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, decided to make it an annual event.


"The exotic Mexican beauty was described as "a new Euphorbia with bright scarlet bracteas, or floral leaves, presented to the Bartram collection by Mr. Poinsett, United States Minister to Mexico." "Mr. Poinsett" was Joel Roberts Poinsett, a prominent South Carolina politician and diplomat with an interest in horticulture.


"Nevertheless, according to historian Joel T. Fry, it was not Bartram's that became known as the poinsettia's patron. English garden historians bestowed that honor on Philadelphia nurseryman Robert Buist, who introduced it to his Scottish homeland in 1834, fully five years after the flower show.


"Even though something new might be discovered, Bartram's didn't sit around recording each one," Fry said.  As opposed to the Brits, who did.


"Late in life, Buist corrected the record. He wrote an article describing his presence at Bartram's when "two plants with stubby little roots were unpacked. They turned out to be poinsettias," Fry said.


"From the get-go, the now oh-so-familiar poinsettia was the province of botanists, "plant nerds," and wealthy hobbyists, according to Paul Ecke 3d, whose great-grandfather Albert Ecke started the family's poinsettia business in Los Angeles a century ago.


"Nobody else had the money to heat their house to keep the flowers alive, and certainly not a greenhouse," Ecke said.


"For decades, the poinsettia was field-grown and sold as a cut flower, like roses. In the 1960s, the Eckes moved their growing operations indoors, commercial breeding began in earnest, and potted plants quickly superseded cut stems as the norm.


"With aggressive marketing, poinsettias soon became "the Christmas plant," which is an honest claim; their natural bloom time is winter.


"Today, besides the ubiquitous red, poinsettias come in lots of colors, even yellow, and designs, including marbled, painted, and glittered. Ecke has a new early-bloomer he promotes for outdoor landscapes in places such as Texas and California.


"Remarkably, red is still the public's favorite color. "It's the tradition," he says.


But the poinsettia industry struggles to attract a younger audience - with novelty and supersized plants, as well as specimens sold in "cool pots that promote lifestyle."


"We don't want poinsettias to just be Grandma's plant or Mom's plant. We have to make poinsettias cool for Gen XYZ," Ecke said... The family business, which moved to Encinitas, Calif., in 1923 and expanded to Guatemala in 1995, still controls 70 percent of the worldwide market in poinsettia cuttings, 50 percent of the domestic.


"As for "Mr. Poinsett," turns out he was vain and opinionated and caused such a scandal in Mexico, he was eventually kicked out. Today, Fry said, "he is always portrayed as an evil American gringo."


"As if that weren't grinch-y enough: In papers left behind, Poinsett never once mentions the curious plant that set Philadelphians on their head in 1829.


"Said Fry: "It was not a big thing in his life."



Christmas Nears


Melozzo da Flori (Italian Renaissance artist, 1438-1494) Angel.  "Without Melozzo, the work of Raphael and Michelangelo would have never existed.” This statement by Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, sums up the impact this renaissance painter had on some of the greatest Italian painters.

In many western Christian religions, Advent is a time of expectant waiting, self-examination, & preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas.


Morning Madonna


Virgin and Child 1490s

In this blog, I try to begin each day with a painting of the Madonna & Child. It centers me; connects me to the past; & encourages me to post some of the religious paintings which were the core of early Western art.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas Nears


Melozzo da Flori (Italian Renaissance artist, 1438-1494) Angel from the Vault of the Sacristy of Saint Mark  January 29, 2011. "Without Melozzo, the work of Raphael and Michelangelo would have never existed.” This statement by Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, sums up the impact this renaissance painter had on some of the greatest Italian painters.

In many western Christian religions, Advent is a time of expectant waiting, self-examination, & preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas.


Thanks for children who fill the house at Christmas


Walther Firle (German artist, 1859–1929) The Fairy Tale


Self-Portraits by Paula Modersohn-Becker 1876-1907


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Self-Portrait 1898

Dresden-born Paula Modersohn-Becker was 12, when her family moved to Bremen. She was the 3rd child of 7 children whose father, the son of a Russian university professor, was employed with the German railway. He and Modersohn-Becker's mother, who was from an aristocratic family, provided the children a cultured & intellectual environment in the household. In 1892, she received her first drawing instruction, and a year later came to England to learn English. In 1897, she saw an exhibition at Bremen's Kunsthalle by the members of the "Worpsweders" commune, artists who lived on the moors outside Bremen protesting the dominance of the academy like the French Barbizon school, as they portrayed local farm families.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Self Portrait on 6th Wedding Anniversary 1906

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 & settled in Worpswede. She later left him to work in Paris, where she immersed herself in French art. A reconciliation led her back to Worpswede, where, in 1907, aged 31, she died of an embolism after the birth of her daughter...her only child. Her daughter Tillie (1907-1998) founded the Paula Modersohn-Becker-Foundation (Paula Modersohn-Becker-Stiftung) in 1978.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Self Portrait 1897


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Self Portrait


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Self Portrait with Hand on Chin 1906


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Self Portrait with Pearl Necklace 1906


>Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907)


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907)


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) 1902


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) 1903


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) 1905


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) 1905


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) 1906


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) 1906-1907


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907)1907


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Self Portrait with Red Flower Wreat and Chain 1907


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Holding her newborn daughter in 1907. She would die only days later.


Paula Modersohn-Becker 1876-1907


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Kopf eines jungen Maedchens mit Perlenkette in Profil nach rechts, 1901

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) is a compelling artist. Here we see a woman trying to find out about herself -- her role as a woman, her sexuality, and her potential role as mother to a young child such as those she paints. Unlike Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) who concentrated on painting mothers & children but early on decided that she would remain unmarried & pursue a career, this artist, obviously attracted to similar subject matter, was in conflict about the path she would take.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Self Portrait on 6th Wedding Anniversary

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Paula: Self-Portrait on Her 6th Wedding Anniversary (1906)The Independent's Great Art series From The Independent, London, UK
By Sue Hubbard Friday, 24 August 2007

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.


Born in Dresden in 1876, Paula Modersohn-Becker was 12 when her family moved to Bremen. In 1892, she received her first drawing instruction, & 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 & 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 & settled in Worpswede. She later left him to live & 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.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Baby and Mother's Hand


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Young Girl


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Farm Child on Cushions 1904


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) The Pram


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Elsbeth 1902


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Sleeping Child


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Head of a Girl 1905


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Young Girl


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Head of a Girl Sitting on a Chair


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Elsbeth in the Garden 1902


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Girl with Black Hat


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) A Girl's Head in front of a Window 1906


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Old Peasant Woman 1905


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) The Old Farmer 1903



Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Old Blind Woman 1899



Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Old Woman with Handkerchief 1903



Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Nursing Mother 1902


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Young Girl with Straw Hat and Flower in her Hand 1902




Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Martha Vogeler 


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Two Children Sitting in a Meadow


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Child's Head with White 


Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) Woman with Child 1906