Otto Modersohn

* 22 02 1865 | Soest
† 10 03 1943 | Rotenburg at Hannover

Otto Modersohn became famous as one of the founding fathers of the Worpswede artist colony. He is considered one of the most important German landscape painters. The locations of his activity, Soest and Münster in his youth, Worpswede and Fischerhude with their long, intensive phases of work, but also study trips to Franconia and stays in the Bavarian Alps characterise his extensive work in painting.


Works by Otto Modersohn

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Otto Modersohn
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Vita Otto Modersohn

1865

Born on 22 February in Soest in Westphalia.

1874

Family moved to Münster.

1884–88

Studies at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, with Eugen Dücker after 1887.

1885

Co-founder of the student artist association Tartarus.

1888

Studies at the Kunstakademie Karlsruhe with Hermann Baisch.

1889

First stay in Worpswede together with Fritz Mackensen and Hans am Ende. Visit to the Paris world exhibition.

1893

Two of his paintings were shown at the "Jahresausstellung" (annual exhibition) in the Munich Glaspalast.

1891–93

Student of Eugen Bracht in Berlin in the winter semester.

1893

Final resettlement to Worpswede in April.

1894

Founding of the Worpswede artist association with Hans am Ende, Fritz Mackensen, Fritz Overbeck, Carl Vinnen and Heinrich Vogeler.

1895

First exhibition of the Worpswede artist association in the Kunstverein (art association) in Bremen. Participation in the "Jahresausstellung von Kunstwerken aller Nationen" (Annual exhibition of artworks of all nations) in the Königlicher Glaspalast in Munich. This made the Worpswede artists known.

1896

Discovered the nearby village of Fischerhude together with Fritz Overbeck.

1897

Purchase of a house in Worpswede. Marriage with Helene Schröder (1868–1914). 1898: daughter Elsbeth is born.

1898

Met Paula Becker, who had begun to study with Fritz Mackensen.

1899

Left the Worpswede artist association.

1900

Visit to the world exhibition in Paris together with Hermine and Fritz Overbeck, as well as Marie Bock, with Paula Becker and Clara Westhoff, who were studying in Paris. Helene Modersohn succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis in Worpswede on 14 June during his absence. Engagement with Paula Becker on 12 September.

1901

Marriage with Paula Becker (1876–1907) on 25 May.

1903

Summer residence on Amrum.

1905

Trip to Paris, where Paula Modersohn-Becker was staying.

1906

Following a temporary separation from Modersohn-Becker, Modersohn spent several months in Paris.

1907

Return to Worpswede together. Paula Modersohn-Becker died on 20 November shortly following the birth of their daughter Mathilde.

1908

Resettlement to nearby Fischerhude.

1909

On 14 April, marriage with the opera singer Louise Breling (1883–1950), daughter of the painter Heinrich Breling. Birth of the children, Ulrich in 1913 and Christian in 1916.

1911

Otto Modersohn engaged himself in opposition to Carl Vinnen’s polemic entitled “Ein Protest Deutscher Künstler“ (A protest of German artists) and in favour of the purchase by the Kunsthalle Bremen of the painting “Field with Poppies” by Vincent van Gogh.

1916

First study trip to Franconia.

Ab 1922

Extended study trips to Wertheim and Würzburg.

1925

First summer stay in the Allgäu. Further stays followed in 1926, 1927 and 1929.

1930

Acquisition of a farmhouse on the Gailenberg near Hindelang in the Allgäu, where Modersohn spent the summer months until 1935.

1936

Detached retina and loss of eyesight in the right eye. After this, Otto Modersohn painted exclusively in the studio.

1938

Awarded the Niederdeutscher Malerpreis (Low German painter award).

1939

Last trip to Hindelang in the Allgäu.

1940

Awarded the Goethe Medal.

1942

Awarded honorary professor title

1943

Died on 10 March after a short illness in the hospital in Rotenburg (Wümme).

About Otto Modersohn

Early work in Westphalia

Otto Modersohn already turned to nature as a boy. He drew insects and plants with pencil and pencil crayons in his colouring books. In 1884, the nineteen-year-old commenced with studies at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf but was disappointed by the landscape composition of his teacher Eugen Dücker. Inspired by the outdoor painting of the Barbizon school, he painted small-format oil studies and first landscape paintings in the vicinity of Soest, Münster and Tecklenburg. These were distinguished by a sensitive instinct for colour and atmosphere, as well as loose brushwork.

Worpswede association of artists

On 3 July 1889, Otto Modersohn came to Worpswede, a small moor village in Lower Saxony of no artistic significance whatsoever on the artistic map up to that point, accompanied by his student friend Fritz Mackensen for the first time. He immediately felt a rapport with the expansive, flat landscape, with its moor canals, the peat-cutting sites, the moor ponds, the delicate birches, the meadows and fields, the moor cottages and farmhouses and the cloud-filled skies, which became regular motifs in his painting.

They were soon joined by other painters: Hans am Ende in the same year, Fritz Overbeck and Heinrich Vogeler in 1893 and 1894 respectively, both Düsseldorf art students. The painters decided to turn their backs on the academy and settle permanently in Worpswede. They founded the Worpswede association of artists in 1895.  

Permeated by the wish for an art “that (almost) goes beyond optical seeing and aims to achieve the substance, the nature of things”, Otto Modersohn’s painting acquired an increasingly atmospheric character. The powerful enhancement and intensification of the colours, the capturing of the brilliant evening light or the melodious colour chords of autumn resulted in a dramatic penetration of the landscape.    

Due to diverging artistic views and increasing competition, Otto Modersohn announced his withdrawal from the artist association in 1899, followed by Fritz Overbeck and Heinrich Vogeler.

Otto Modersohn and Paula Modersohn-Becker

The young art student Paula Becker began to study with Fritz Mackensen in 1898. She and Otto Modersohn soon became a couple after the death of his first wife. The marriage was characterised by an animated artistic exchange and also provided the eleven-year older Modersohn with valuable impulses. His painting became freer, his brushstroke more generous. His paintings were now characterised by a simplification of the motifs and an increasing rejection of wealth of detail. Greater significance was also now attached to the figure, which enriched the landscape motif; several less well-known fairy tale representations also appeared around 1900. 

Resettlement in Fischerhude

Otto Modersohn had already discovered the neighbouring Fischerhude while hiking with Fritz Overbeck in 1896 and moved there in 1908 following the early death of Paula Modersohn-Becker. In the seclusion of the expansive Wümme landscape, he sought comfort in painting, which here once again underwent further development. He now increasingly used darker, lusher colours, the broadly applied brushstrokes acquired a certain autonomy and suggest an echo of the painting of Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh. Otto Modersohn was aware of the Expressionist stylistic developments but remained true to himself in that he declined to look for the “power” of his paintings in “colourfulness”.

Travels to Franconia

From 1916 to 1927, Modersohn embarked on a series of study trips to Franconia together with his third wife Luise Breling. The artist found new impulses in Wertheim and Würzburg: The focus was now on the atmospheric. Dealing with light and air in soft, diffuse transitions became an important pictorial theme. Here, one could already see what would become its very own pictorial language in the late work. 

In the Allgäu

In 1925, the family travelled to the Allgäu for the first time. This opened up a fully new world of motifs for the artist, which he experienced as gripping and dramatic. At the behest of his wife, Otto Modersohn purchased an old farmhouse on the Gailenberg near Hindelang in 1930, where he spent the spring and summer months. Inspired by the wealth of alpine flora, floral still lifes also found their way into his work here. Unlike his wife, however, Otto Modersohn never really felt entirely at home in the Bavarian Alps and returned increasingly frequently to Fischerhude. 

The late work

Defining for Modersohn’s late work are autumn and winter, with their floods, the flat land covered with fog and the snow-covered landscape. A glazed, transparent style of painting dominates the canvas and captures subtle, atmospheric moods with soft light and fine nuances of colouring. Modersohn’s painting of the last ten years of his life became incorporeal, lyrical and mysterious. 

More information about Otto Modersohn

Text authored and provided by Dr. Doris Hansmann, Art historian

Studies of art history, theater, film and television, English and Romance Languages at the University of Cologne, doctorated in 1994. Research assistant at the Art Museum Düsseldorf. Lecturer and project manager at Wienand Verlag, Cologne. Freelance work as an author, editor and book producer for publishers and museums in Germany and abroad. From 2011 chief editor at Wienand Verlag, from 2019 to 2021 senior editor at DCV, Dr. Cantz’sche Verlagsgesellschaft, Berlin. Numerous publications on the art of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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