Paula Modersohn-Becker was born in Dresden, Germany, and raised in a cultured and intellectual middle-class household.
The family moved to Bremen when she was a child. She studied to become a teacher in 1883-1885 and also received private lessons in painting. She received her first drawing lessons in 1892 during a long stay in London with one of her paternal aunts. In 1896, she participated in a course for painting and drawing sponsored by the Verein der Berliner Künstlerinnen (Union of Berlin Female Artists) which offered art studies to women, followed by a one-and-a half-year apprenticeship. In 1898, she moved to the artist' colony at Worpswede, near Bremen. She was a friend of Rainer Maria Rilke and his wife, sculptor Clara Rilke-Westhoff. In 1901, she married Otto Modersohn, a landscape painter. Between 1900 and 1907, she traveled to and stayed in Paris several times, studying at the Académie Colarossi and École des Beaux-Arts, where she met leading avant-garde artists. Her work was especially influenced by Cézanne and Gaugin. She left her husband to devote herself entirely to her art, but returned home in March 1907. She gave birth to a daughter on November 2, 1907, and died suddenly of an embolism on November 20, at age 31.
She was the first modern woman artist to paint herself nude, as well as mothers and children, and is now considered one of the most important of the early German modernists.