MoMA and Neue Galerie Acquire a Masterpiece by Paula Modersohn-Becker, the Expressionist Pioneer With a Tragic Life Story

When the 1907 painting is hung today, it will be the oldest work by a woman on view at MoMA.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Selbstbildnis mit zwei Blumen in der erhobenen linken Hand (Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand), 1907. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art and the Neue Galerie.
Paula Modersohn-Becker, Selbstbildnis mit zwei Blumen in der erhobenen linken Hand (Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand), 1907, detail. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art and the Neue Galerie.

Two New York institutions, the Museum of Modern Art and the Neue Galerie, are jointly acquiring a self-portrait by artist Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907), the early Expressionist painter and pioneer of the 20th-century German avant-garde. The work is a gift to MoMA from Debra and Leon Black and to the Neue Galerie from Ronald S. Lauder.

“This will be the only self-portrait by Paula Modersohn-Becker in the United States, and her only painting in a New York institution,” said Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, in a statement. “An acquisition of this importance and rarity is a thrilling occurrence here at the museum.”

The piece, titled Selbstbildnis mit zwei Blumen in der erhobenen linken Hand (Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand), was painted in 1907 and depicts Modersohn-Becker while pregnant with her daughter Mathilde, her hand resting on her stomach.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Seated Old Woman (Sitzende Alte), c. 1899–1902. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Seated Old Woman (Sitzende Alte), c. 1899–1902. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

The artist died that year due to an embolism, at 31 just years old. She left behind some 700 paintings—including portraits of her friends Rainer Maria Rilke and Clara Westhoff, and her husband, painter Otto Modersohn—and 1,000 works on paper. According to the museum, this painting is the first known self-portrait of a pregnant woman.

New York’s Galerie St. Etienne gave the artist her first American solo show in 1958, and exhibited her work again in 1983 and 2015. “At the time of the 2015 show, MoMA was already looking for a major Modersohn-Becker painting, but as Ann Temkin said, it had to be the ‘right’ one,” wrote gallery director Jane Kallir in an email to artist News. “With this acquisition, I think they have indeed found the perfect work—one of the artist’s last self-portraits, from what most art historians consider her strongest period.”

“Modersohn-Becker prices have been steadily rising, but there has been nothing of this quality on the market in recent years, so far as I am aware,” Kallir added. “I’d be reluctant to guess at the price.”

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Selbstbildnis mit zwei Blumen in der erhobenen linken Hand (Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand), 1907. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art and the Neue Galerie.

The full-size work by Paula Modersohn-Becker, Selbstbildnis mit zwei Blumen in der erhobenen linken Hand (Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand), 1907. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art and the Neue Galerie.

The artist’s record at auction is €525,000 ($714,994), for the mother-and-child portrait Auf einem Stuhl sitzendes Mädchen mit Kind auf dem Schoss vor Landschaft (c. 1904), which sold at Berlin’s Grisebach GmbH in 2013, according to the artnet Price Database.

Self-Portrait was acquired from the descendants of collectors Paul and Else Speck, and was first sold in 1919 by gallerist I.B. Neumann to Berlin collector Hugo Simon.

MoMA currently owns four intaglio prints but no paintings by Modersohn-Becker, who was the only woman featured in the museum’s “German Painting and Sculpture,” the 1931 survey exhibition curated by Alfred Barr. According to Temkin, Self-Portrait will become the oldest painting by a woman on view at the museum when it is hung in the fifth floor galleries today, November 22.


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