Harriet Backer: a gifted, determined artist

Jill Beatty
Daughters of Norway

Photo: Wikimedia Commons Harriet Backer’s “Aften, interiør” (Evening, interior).

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Harriet Backer’s “Aften, interiør” (Evening, interior).

Harriet Backer (January 21, 1845—March 25, 1932) was a Norwegian painter who achieved recognition in her own time and was a pioneer among female artists both in the Nordic countries and in Europe generally. She is best known for her detailed interior scenes, communicated with rich colors and exquisite lighting.

Harriet Backer was one of four daughters born to Nils and Sophie Backer. They resided in Holmestrand, Vestfold, Norway. Her father Nils was a ship merchant, and her mother had come from a wealthy family. Their status in life enabled the girls to have a cultured upbringing, an education with focus in music and the arts. Each of the sisters was gifted. Harriet’s younger sister Agathe (Backer Grøndahl), became a well known concert pianist, and is considered Norway’s greatest female composer. The eldest sister Inga was educated as a singer in Berlin, but she only shared her talent with the family, and not professionally. Her youngest sister Margrethe was a painter. She also was the Senior Matron at the Royal Palace, and in addition to her work, she had eight children, which allowed little time to pursue an artistic career.

Harriet started her career differently than her sisters. Initially she had a great interest to write novels and tales and become an author. When her family moved to Christiania (Oslo) in 1856, she attended the Nissen School for Governesses, which at the time, was the highest form of education open to women. She excelled in languages, and became competent in German, French, Italian and English. She attended a class in a local painting school, which introduced her to the world of art.

Photos: Nasjonalbiblioteket / Flickr Backer in her studio c. 1920.

Photos: Nasjonalbiblioteket / Flickr
Backer in her studio c. 1920.

Her sister Agathe’s career as a concert pianist overshadowed Harriet’s accomplishments. In fact she began to accompany her as a chaperone during her travels abroad. During these travels, she had time to visit museums. The exposure to such famous paintings inspired a new interest and she would spend hours copying them in her sketch book. With a desire to improve her skill, she arranged for private art lessons from a variety of teachers. Gradually, this hobby helped her to decide she wanted to be educated as a painter. She returned Christiania (Oslo) and between the years of 1870-1874, she was a pupil at Knud Bergslien’s painting school.

At the age of 29 (1874), she decided on more formal study in Munich, Germany. Her determination to excel had grown as she continued to focus on copying the Old Masters and historical subjects. In those years, Munich was the place the elite Norwegian painters gathered, and here she became a lifelong friend with Kitty Kielland. However, being a woman, she had no rights to attend regular courses, but received private instruction from a variety of resources.

When her father died in 1877, most likely her mother wanted her to come home. One year later she wrote to her mother saying that she would not be returning home to care for her. This was not the expected behavior of the time, but she indicated in her letter to her mother that art was her calling, and simply must take precedence over her duties as a daughter. That same year she painted “Avskjeden” (“the Farewell”) which shows a grown daughter leaving her father, while her mother weeps in the background. The young woman in the painting looks like Harriet. After spending sometime developing her paintings in Munich, she moved to Paris, where she continued to study and paint, mostly historical interiors. Greatly influenced by impressionist painting, she was always regarded as more of a realist. She paid great attention to the light in her paintings. With her painting “Blue Interior”, in 1883, she achieved the colors like those of the Impressionists. The model in the painting was Asta Nørregard, another famous Norwegian painter. This painting is regarded as one of Harriet’s masterpieces. One can imagine those days in Paris with her friends Kitty, and Asta, studying in classes and developing their own unique style. They probably did not realize at the time the significance they would play in Norwegian art history.

Photos: Nasjonalbiblioteket / Flickr Portrait of Harriet Backer, date unknown.

Photos: Nasjonalbiblioteket / Flickr
Portrait of Harriet Backer, date unknown.

Harriet spent her summers in Norway and began to focus on the farm interior as a new subject matter. At the time many Nationalist ideas were developing. Art critic Andreas Aubert observed that the artist’s technical skills could be learned abroad, but the deep personal involvement and understanding of Norwegian ways could only be attained if the artist returned to study in his/her own country.

In 1888, she moved back to Norway permanently and settled in Sandvika, outside of Christiania (Oslo). Some of her finest paintings were created over the next five years. She began to paint interiors by lamplight, resulting in long shadows which gave the rooms a sense of mystery. At this time she began to paint church interiors. This was a new subject for her. She spent several years completing the painting “Christening in Tanum Church” (1892).

Harriet began to give private painting lessons and in 1892 developed into a school she had until 1910. She focused on encouraging and teaching female artists, as she probably recalled how hard it was for her to obtain instruction.

During the summers she always travelled, in search of new subject matter. She met many of the Norwegian Nationalists, and spent time in their homes.

She always staged her interiors, using models and choosing props for the scenes, including those in churches. In her career she painted 180 paintings, mostly of farm and church interiors. It is interesting to note she never did paint her sister Agathe at the piano, although she did use her as a model in some of her paintings.

Even into her advanced age, Harriet would travel the summer in pursuit of new subject matter. Her last interior painting was completed in 1924. The National Gallery commissioned her to paint several still-lifes, the last one titled “Evighetsbildet” (the Eternity painting), which was never completed. She received many awards including being honored with the Order of St. Olav. In her hometown of Holmestrand, Ada Madssen erected a bronze statue of Harriet and her sister Agathe in 1982.

Harriet was considered one of the greatest Norwegian painters, and one of the few female artists who achieved recognition while she was still alive. Harriet Backer showed us that even if your life’s passion is discovered later in life, you can always, with determination, learn and pursue your calling.

Bryne, Arvid (translated by Jean Aase). They painted Norway Glimpses of Norwegian nature and Norwegian artists
Andresen & Butenschøn AS, 2004 Print.
Lange, Marit. Harriet Backer. Oslo, Norway. Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 1995. Print
Henie-Onstad Art Center. At Century’s End: Norwegian Artists and the Figurative Tradition 1880/1990
Hvikodden, Norway. 1995. Print

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 13, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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