When it comes to art history, firsts are notoriously tough to pinpoint—it can be difficult to definitively state that someone did something before anyone else when the world is so big and when visual expression is so diverse. But Paula Modersohn-Becker is believed to be a true pioneer at a least a few respects. She is considered to be among the first modern women to create a nude self-portrait and one of the first to paint such an image of herself pregnant. Her biographer, Diane Radycki, went one step further, labeling the artist the first modernist woman painter altogether in a 2013 book.
These are strong claims to fame for an artist who never lived past her 30s. Born in Dresden, Germany, in 1876, she died in 1907 of an embolism at age 31. Still, in that short time, she created 734 paintings, some of which have made their way into the canon, thanks to the work of feminist art historians like Linda Nochlin, Griselda Pollock, and Wendy Slatkin. In the course of her abbreviated career, she managed to shake up portraiture and to effectively predict the course modernism would take in the years after her—even if many around Modersohn-Becker didn’t know just how important she was. (During her lifetime, she had few admirers. Among those who did take notice of her was the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.)
Currently on view at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany, is one of the biggest Modersohn-Becker retrospectives in recent memory. Curated by Ingrid Pfeiffer, it features 120 paintings and drawings by the artist and offers a comprehensive overview of her output. With that show on view through mid-February, below is a guide to five key works by Modersohn-Becker.