Otto Modersohn, Moon rising on the Moor

Otto Modersohn, Moon rising on the Moor, 1897, oil on canvas, Schlossmuseum, Weimar. Image Otto Modersohn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons ( )  

‘Worpswede, Worpswede, Worpswede!….Birches, birches, pine trees and old willows. Beautiful brown moors – exquisite brown! The canals with their black reflections, black as asphalt. The (River) Hamme, with its dark sails – a wonderland, a land of the gods…’[1] So wrote the 21-year-old Paula Becker about the Teufelsmoor (Devil’s Moor) in north-west Germany, in the same year as her future husband Otto Modersohn painted Moon rising on the Moor there, at the village of Worpswede. Modersohn and others disenchanted with academic art training had established a ‘colony’ in 1889 at Worpswede, to paint from nature as at Barbizon in France. Others had joined them, including Becker (now remembered as Paula Modersohn-Becker, the pioneering Modernist painter).[2]

Moonrise shows the moment when work on the moor – cutting and gathering peat – has ended. But this is when the painter’s work begins. For the young girl dreamily gazing across dike and goats to the distant rising moon is surely an emblem for Modersohn’s aim to ‘reach…almost beyond optical seeing’, to capture what he called ‘the content, the characteristic, of things’.[3] He and his colleagues looked to the untutored vision of children, so responsive to nature’s sensations, as a guide in this.[4]The young girl leaning against a birch tree seems indeed like some even younger Paula Becker, already in love with the ‘land of the gods’ with its wide, open sky. With her soft pink dress that matches the colour of the clouds, she implies a contrast with the adult peat-workers, whom another colony member, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, described as ‘dripping with wet, matching the bogs in…..their black, muddy clothes, shovelling out the leaden bog earth’ to win their ‘piece of bread’.[5] The girl’s Rückenfigur(back-turned pose) invites us to follow her gaze, to become like artists ourselves.[6] We notice how the moon makes the birches gleam, and is caught in opalescent reflection in the dike: here is a vibrant world of subtle but intense light and colour, where sky, moor and girl become as one. 

Rilke certainly noted that on the vast plain of the Teufelsmoor at Worpswede, the sky was of ‘indescribable variety and size’ and seemed ‘reflected everywhere’.[7] Occupying some 500 square kilometres, the Teufelsmoor is one of the largest areas of raised bog in North-West Germany, and today undergoing restoration (Fig. 1).[8] Drained in the late eighteenth century under Frederick the Great, with help from Dutch engineers, it had become a major site of commercial peat extraction by the time of the Worpswede colony, with the Oste-Hamme canal, also built by Frederick, enabling transport of turfs to Bremen and Hamburg.

Fig. 1 Restored former arm of the Hamme (Renaturierter Altarm der Hamme). Image: Olgi49, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons ( )

The pumping mill and dike in Moon Rising over the Moor would thus have spoken of perceived ‘German’ power to control nature, in contrast to the Slavic east with its undrained swamps and fisherfolk.[9] But in the magical dusk, in Modersohn’s picture, these emblems of human intervention are subsumed by the greater cosmic power of sun and moon, just as Rilke traced the origins of Worpswede to the rise and fall of primal seas ‘thousands of years ago’, that had caused ‘black, shifting bogs full of sodden creatures and slowly putrefying fertility’ to emerge.[10] He implicitly linked the Worpswede artists, forsaking the city for the Teufelsmoor, back to the people who, already long before Frederick the Great, had ‘migrated to the black, unstable land so as to begin a new life’.[11]

For Modersohn and his colleagues sought to forge a utopian world at Worpswede, that linked the unity of plant, animal and human life proposed by the scientist Ernst Haeckel with respect for ‘Heimat’ or locality, and the craft techniques they admired in William Morris’s work. Although the concept of ‘Heimat’ was later subverted by Nazi ideology, Heinrich Vogeler, another member of the Worpswede colony, thus developed the ‘Barkenhoff’ – the house as white as the moon and birches that became the artistic hub of Worpswede, amidst a beautiful garden. Today, the restored Barkenhoff is a museum for his work (Fig. 2). 

Fig. 2 The Barkenhoff (birches farmyard) in Worpswede, Germany. Image: Till F. Teenck, CC BY-SA 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons ( )

Describing Worpswede in 1903, Rilke was confident of nature’s powers of endurance, arguing that the trees on the Teufelsmoor moor ‘grow towards a future that we shall not experience’.[12] But he also presciently warned against treating nature as ‘something to be exploited as far as possible’[13] – a point that has much resonance as we seek to protect the environment today.

Clare A.P. Willsdon

[1] Paula Modersohn-Becker, Journal entry for 24 July, 1897, in Charles Harrison, Paul Wood and Jason Geiger (eds), Art in Theory 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford 1998, p. 903.

[2] For a history of the colony in its wider international context, see Mary Ann Caws, Creative gatherings: meeting places of modernism, London, 2019; for the contribution of women artists to this colony, see Sabine Wieber, ‘Martha Vogeler and the Worpswede Artists’ Colony, 1894-1905’, in B.U. Münch et al (eds), Künstlerinnen: Neue Perspektiven auf ein Forschungsfeld der Vormoderne, Petersberg, 2017, pp. 199-210.

[3] Comment of 1 January 1890 by Modersohn, cited in ‘Zum Werk von Otto Modersohn’, Otto Modersohn Museum, (accessed 30.9.21) (author’s transl.).

[4] See e.g. the celebration of the child’s vision, and of Philipp Otto Runge’s imagery of the child’s closeness to nature, in Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Concerning Landscape Painting’, transl. Edward Neather, in Art in Translation, Volume 3, Issue 1, p. 13 and pp. 19-20 (first published as ‘Einleitung’ in Worpswede, Bielefeld and Leipzig, 1903, after Rilke’s time with the Worpswede colony).

[5] Ibid., p. 24.

[6] The Rückenfigur had been much used by German Romantic artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, to blur the boundaries of real and painted worlds, and engage the viewer’s empathy.

[7] Rilke, op. cit., p. 22. Rilke noted in ‘Heinrich Vogeler: Worpswede’, Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, 1902, Vol.  p. 295, that Worpswede was an area ‘a previously completely neglected’ by artists (author’s transl.).  

[8] See (accessed 1.10.21). 

[9] David Blackbourn, ‘”The Garden of our Hearts”: Landscape, Nature and Local Identity in the German East’, in David Blackbourn and James Retallack (eds.), Localism, Landscape, and the Ambiguities of Place : German-Speaking Central Europe, 1860-1930, Toronto 2007, p. 153-4.

[10] Ibid..

[11] Ibid., p. 23.

[12] Ibid., p. 12

[13] Ibid., p. 13.