Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self-Portrait in Front of Paris Buildings (1900) shows a dark face dimly projected against a brilliantly lighted wall. It’s a tiny, prettily colored painting reminiscent of the early Vuillard, except that Vuillard would never have painted so frontal, so hieratic a self-representation. From the picture’s roiled surface a splayed, witchy gaze bears down upon you: those almond-shaped eyes sit so far apart they seem to grip you in a vice. This, you might think, is the stuff that legendary headmistresses are made of, except for a few curious details. The gelid, archaic smile seems at times to lapse into a decidedly schoolgirlish smirk, and from the collar droops an equally school-girlish bow, the sort of bow that goes with a pinafore. This is the sort of person you seem to remember from childhood or a dream. Perhaps she reminds you of the tallest girl in the class—the one...


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