Art school or the kitchen? Modersohn-Becker's letters to her parents

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1893

[Editor’s note: Paula Modersohn-Becker had a devoted relationship with her family, writing dozens of letters back and forth with them while studying art in London. These selected letters, both from Paula, and from her father in reply, paint a picture of a supportive, if hesitant family, unsure if they should encourage their young daughter to continue pursuing the arts.]

To her parents

Willey, September 2, 1892

My dear Parents,

Today I can finally address you again in the plural and feel safe in doing so, because I have learned from Else that you are all together again in your warm nest. How I would like to catch a glimpse of the twins now! Are they as suntanned as they were on Juist? Right now we have the exact opposite of your weather, a terrible storm and pouring rain. We have not played lawn tennis for a whole week now, and can't do it today either. It is too bad, because Dr. Prate’s family is coming to-day and they are such fine players. I am already beginning to make Christmas presents. Aunt Marie, Mrs. Prate, and I are all making the same thing, but of course I can't tell you what it is. We are all tremendously busy and each of us thinks that her work is the prettiest and is full of praise for herself. When we three women are sitting together, the other two always begin talking about their husbands. It really is awfully comical to listen to. First one complains about one thing and then the other complains about something else. Then they both begin to praise them frightfully and each one claims to have the very best husband. Just imagine, Mrs. Prate has never had an argument with her husband and in fact has never been unfriendly to him even once. Isn't that sweet? I have just made eight and a half pounds of butter. You are probably always hearing that news from me, for Friday is my butter day. It really is a great deal of work and today it made me very tired. I received a charming letter from Gunther yesterday. It does make me happy whenever I hear from him. I answered him right away and I hope he will now follow my good example. Uncle Charles had wrapped up Gunther’s letter in my napkin. I was feeling so sad that I had not received a let-ter again. Then I found it there at breakfast. Wasn't that charming? From twelve to one I read with Aunt Marie every day. At first we just read short stories, but now I am supposed to begin learning something more serious. So we have now begun to read biographies, starting with Thackeray. When I am alone I read Scott’s Rob Roy. I have not gotten very far into it yet, but I think it is very fine. Must close now. Farewell. A kiss for next Sunday to all of you from,

Your Paula

P.S. How terrible to hear of the cholera in Germany! Are you all eating your fruit? [On the reverse of the page:] I do not yet dare send you a “painting” by me. I fear your scorn.

To Paula from her father

Bremen, September 22, 1892

Dear Paula,

We have received your first attempts in watercolor and rather than the scorn you were expecting, you have earned our respect. Your studies show progress and your oranges (forgive me if perhaps I am not calling the fruit by its right name) are so rounded and plastic, that if they had not been black as pitch, I would have taken a bite out of them. The fruits are beautifully shaped and the shading on them and the shadows they cast are also quite correct. If you continue to try, perhaps you can be even more successful. In any case, you must not give up your efforts but in-stead pursue them with all the time at your disposal. Even if you should not become a perfect artist, you can get a great deal of joy and pleasure through your efforts. I have always thought that it is very good to practice one’s eye by looking at nature. But at the same time one’s drawing must not be neglected, so that it is not merely one’s eye but also one’s hand that acquires the necessary skill. Therefore, when-ever you have the opportunity be sure to practice. If you are going to London now, I hope very much that you will find the opportunity to look at many drawings and paintings. Be sure to study not so much their content as their form. In art, the latter is the main thing, even if the art disciple finds that hard to comprehend at first. The most beautiful idea is nothing, so long as the execution does not correspond to its concept. [ It would also be a very good idea for you to study a bit of art history, along with your training in painting. I am not familiar with any English publications in art history, but certainly your teacher will be able to recommend some to you. The [National] Gallery in London has representative examples of the major schools, so that you can secure your knowledge in a practical way by study-ing them there.

To her parents

London, October 21, 1892

I shall begin with the latest news. Aunt Marie and I have just returned from a “school of art” that I am to enter next Monday. I shall have lessons there every day from ten until four. At first I shall only be doing drawing, beginning with very simple arabesques and other designs. If I progress, then I shall make charcoal sketches after Greek plaster casts. I have already seen several Venuses, and I must tell you I was enchanted by them; the shadows are so soft. If I advance further, I shall begin drawing and painting from live models. But I don't yet dare hope to be able to progress even that far. I shall be happy enough to be able to do a good chalk drawing of one of the Greek casts. There are between fifty and seventy la-dies and gentlemen in the studio, most of whom are studying to become artists. I am the youngest, I think, and I really do not fit quite properly among all these talented people. But on the other hand, it will be good for me if I find out that I am the furthest behind and discover how far I am capable of going. That will also spur me on in my ambition. Lessons begin next Monday. I am very grateful to Uncle Charles for this opportunity. [ ... ]

To her parents

London, October 28, 1892

What naturally occupies my thoughts more than anything just now are my drawing lessons. The senior master is Mr. Ward, a middle-aged man, who speaks terribly fast because he probably does not have enough time to say everything he wants to. His lessons are wonderful and he never praises anybody. But he has so awfully many pupils that he really does not have enough time for each of us every day. So far he has helped me only three times. On other days he is replaced by assistants. I just wish you could have a look at our “antiqua room.” If I only had the time I would spend all of it just looking around and seeing how everybody’s drawings progress from day to day. All the ladies wear full, gathered smocks and sit in front of their easels on frightfully high stools, even higher than office stools. I told them I preferred one of the lower easels for men, because even though sitting on such a high perch is divinely artistic, it is much too dangerous for a poor mortal like me. Today I made a drawing of an eye with cheekbone, brow, and so forth. Even though it did not turn out exactly “antiqua,” it was still frightfully ugly. At the beginning everything is three times life-size.

To her parents

London, November 10, 1892

...I have a lot of time on my hands today. There is a real London fog outside and the studio was plunged into such Egyptian darkness that we couldn't see a thing, and one cannot draw plaster casts by artificial light because the shadows are suddenly so different. It takes me three-quarters of an hour to reach the school. Naturally I did not want to have to come all that way in vain, so I went in-to the room where the live model usually sits. This time it was a man dressed as a monk. He had a fine, determined face. I tacked a fresh sheet of drawing paper to my board and sat down at my easel. But I let it go at that point because, you see, I was suddenly so terrified, surrounded by all the artists, that I put my tail between my legs and crept away. Aunt Marie is amazed that I even had the courage to go in there at all...

To her parents

London, November 18, 1892

...More about my drawing lessons. I am putting together another sheaf of drawings and shall send them to you. I watched my neighbor sketching a skull to-day. She was handling the thing as if it were a handkerchief. Just looking at her doing that made a chill run up and down my spine. Someone else was drawing a skeleton. She unhinged the ribs one by one in order to get a good look at them, and then stuck them back into place—all with the greatest calm and lack of concern. No, thank you, I am in no rush to go that far...

To Paula from her father

Bremen, November 21, 1892

...Today’s letter from you announces that we are soon to receive samples of your progress in drawing. I really look forward to these pages of studies from you. Even if I tend to criticize mercilessly and to dwell on shortcomings, that does not mean that I overlook the good points. It simply seems to be a part of my nature that I see the mistakes before I see what is good. That is not a very endearing trait in my character, but who can change himself in his old age or teach himself to withhold his opinion? For that reason you must not be quite so sensitive to my reproaches. Just continue to tell yourself that to every bad remark you get, something good is to be added, even though it is not articulated. And do not let up in your endeavors. If you really prove to have talent for drawing and painting, then I will certainly want to try to continue providing lessons for you here in Germany, so that later you will be able to stand on your own two feet. When one thinks about the sudden changes we are subjected to in this age, particularly regarding the things that make a good life, and when one thinks about the strenuous work needed in our battle for existence, it is clear that every young woman must strive to make herself independent if need be...

To Paula from her father

Bremen, December 8, 1892

Dear Paula, As you already know from your aunt Marie you are being given the choice of either enrolling in an English boarding school or coming home to us. Now, consider carefully which you would rather do, so that later you will not regret your decision. Either decision, so long as it is a firm one, will be fine with us, and in making it you do not need to take us into consideration. Unfortunately we have heard that your health has been disturbed recently by slight fainting spells. I do not attach much importance to such symptoms, which are temporary and in any case can, with time, be alleviated through sensible diet, clothing, and exercise. But we must not neglect such symptoms of illness and should try to diagnose them. On one hand, your present period of growth may be to blame, and on the other hand, your mother believes that you are suffering from a suppressed homesickness. She hopes, therefore, that in her care you will soon recover...

To Marie Hill

Bremen, January 14, 1893

My dear aunt Marie, Since the receivel of your dear letter I bear with me the thought of answering you. But I waited always for a conclusion of my parents, whether I am to remain here or whether to come over. To-day Papa told me, that Mama thought it best I should remain here and learn busily in the household, to learn cooking and so on. I think I don't quite agree with their resolution. Here I am my own mistress, I can do what I like and leave off what I don't like. There is a great temptation in it…
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Paula Modersohn-Becker, The ArtistsPortrait of Paula Modersohn-Becker

Paula Modersohn-Becker

Why do Expressionists die young?

1876 – 1907

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