Clara Rilke-Westhoff

1878Bremen, Germany | 1954Fischerhude, Germany

German sculptor and painter.

The daughter of a Bremen merchant, Clara Westhoff began studying art in 1895 in Munich at the Fehr/Schmid-Reutte private art school. She developed a keen interest in the drawing lessons of Friedrich Fehr (1862-1927), which she attended for two years. During this time she drew numerous portraits and took anatomy and perspective classes. She also contested the increasing prices of women’s classes, to no avail. In November 1896, with her parents’ approval, she started drawing nudes at the studio of Moritz Weinholdt (1861-1905).
She admired the collection of copper engravings at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, visited the 1895 and 1896 exhibitions of the Munich Secession and the 1895 International Exhibition at the Glass Palace, where the painters of the Worpswede community achieved their first success. In the summer of 1897 she stayed in Heimhausen for five months to train with landscape painter Bernhard Buttersack (1858-1925).
C. Rilke-Westhoff left Munich for Worpswede in 1898. She followed the advice Fritz Mackensen (1866-1953) had given her to focus on sculpture, and began to create life-size pieces. She occasionally worked with Paula Becker (1876-1907), F. Mackensen’s pupil, sharing the same models – female farmers and the destitute. She sculpted a bust of Paula Becker on this occasion.

She presented Frau Mindermann (Portrait of the “Old Lady”) at the German Art Exhibition in Dresden in 1899 and in Bremen, where she also showed a Portrait of the Painter Paula Modersohn-Becker and a Portrait of the Artist’s Grandmother, Laura Westhoff. On the recommendation of F. Mackensen, she went on to study with Max Klinger (1857-1920) in Leipzig that same year and learnt to work with marble. She then travelled to Paris in 1900 on the advice of Carl Seffner (1861-1932) and M. Klinger and perfected her craft at the Académie Julian, the École des Beaux-Arts and at the studio of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), who praised her work. She later returned to work with him after she married poet Rainer Maria Rilke in 1901. In 1900 she created winged angel faces for the Zion Church in Worpswede and around 1937-1938 bas-reliefs for a fishermen’s house in Wesermünde; but her preferred subject matter remained the human figure.
She and R. M. Rilke quickly separated and she continued to travel to Rome, Denmark, Sweden and Egypt. She settled in Munich with her daughter Ruth from 1911 to 1919 before moving to Fischerhude, where she would live until her death in 1954. After having sculpted portraits, busts, nudes and medallions, she painted the village’s surrounding nature. Several exhibitions were devoted to her from 1955 to 1988. In 1986 Marina Sauer’s biography of the artist and catalogue raisonné provided additional insight into her life and work.

Mathilde Leïchlé

Translated from French by Lucy Pons.

Publication made in partnership with musée d’Orsay.
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions

© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
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