Document Type



Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1876-1907, had a short, intense life – one in which death remained close by. This closeness is due to a high number of tragedies her family incurred, as well as her (correct) belief that she would die young. This apprehension for death, among other reasons that will be explored in this thesis, led her to be inspired by the Fayum mummy portraits, an ancient funerary art form dating back to 30-40 CE in the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian history. Aside from the exhibition entitled Paula Modersohn-Becker und die ägyptischen Mumienportraitsat the Museen Böttcherstraßethere there remains no scholarship directly comparing individual Fayum mummy portraits with works created by Modersohn-Becker. This gap in scholarship is significant for two primary reasons: firstly, because her encounter with the Fayum mummy portraits at the Louvre Museum pre-dates other European modernists’ engagement with African art, and secondly, that her engagement with these works illuminates discussions about the interplay of life and death in her oeuvre. This thesis outlines how this interplay is succeeded through self-re-imagination, visual symbolism of growth and decay, and portraits of her own child, Elsbeth. The culmination of these three elements demonstrates that themes surrounding the life cycle permeate her whole career, not only her maternal portraits. Moreover, this thesis will emphasize how Modersohn-Becker’s portraits transgress a linear timeline due to the insertion of ancient Fayum stylistic practices into her modernist works. Ultimately, this thesis offers an exploration of what drove Modersohn-Becker to be inspired by these ancient portraits, exactly how prominent they are in her own works, and how her compositions seemingly come alive with new meaning when the presence of life and death in her portraiture is considered.


Art and Art History

Thesis Comittee

Dr. Jonathan Shirland, Thesis Advisor
Dr. Beatrice St. Laurent, Committee Member
Dr. Sean H. McPherson, Committee Member