- Artist: Harriet Backer
- Creation date: 1883
- Object type: Painting
Harriet Backer is known for her pictures of interiors. Although she also painted landscapes, portraits and still lifes, a majority of her production revolved around interiors. Blue Interior is one of her best known paintings in this genre.
Here Backer depicts the effect of light on the colours in the room. The title refers to a blue interior, but it is not the room itself that is blue. Daylight is reflected from the window, defining the colours and shapes of the room. The blue hue creates a unified effect. At the same time the motif is colourful and highly detailed. The model was the artist’s colleague and friend Asta Nørregaard, and the painting was executed in Paris, where they both lived.
From Munich to Paris
In 1878, Backer was one of the first Norwegian artists of her generation to move to Paris. French plein air (outdoor) painting and Impressionism became important sources of inspiration for her. She altered her painting style, moving towards the period’s more realistic motifs featuring everyday life. Blue Interior is one of the first examples of this. The picture was exhibited in both Copenhagen and Kristiania (Oslo) the same year it was painted, and was widely praised.
Spots of colour in fixed constellations like stars in the heavens
It was while Backer was in Paris that she began to explore light conditions and colour effects. She explored how to render a contrast between indoor and outdoor light in a painting. How colours are perceived differently in lamplight and in daylight. Whether it was possible to shape a good illusion of spatial depth with free, painterly brushstrokes. These were the kinds of issues she addressed. She described her working method as follows:
In my experience, being occupied with the study of light and the painstaking effort of drawing is inspiring and helps one to discover colour. […] As in the Impressionist route, […] the spots of colour shall appear in fixed constellations, as the stars in the heavens lie beckoning to each other. As musical chords resonate together, utterly beautiful, in a colouristic interplay. This is what I believe I have now learnt from Bonnat in France about how it should be.
Studies of indoor light
Interior motifs were ideal for Backer in her studies of the effects of light and colour. She was able to work indoors, practically undisturbed, in more or less comfortable surroundings and with relatively predictable light effects. Her studio was the room she was painting at any given time. Backer spent a great deal of time on each painting. She also painted landscapes, but her outdoor motifs had to be carried out more quickly due to the changing weather and constant fluctuation in light conditions. Painting interiors enabled her to devote as much time as she needed to her works. The rooms are occasionally devoid of people, but usually there is a person or two present. They are often sitting still, doing needlework, playing the piano, reading or talking. Backer used professional models and her family and friends as subjects, and she depicted both middle-class homes and farmers’ living quarters. In addition to domestic scenes, church interiors play an important role among her motifs.
Marit Ingeborg Lange, Harriet Backer (Oslo: Gyldendal forlag, 1995)
Else Christie Kielland, Harriet Backer: 1845–1932 (Oslo: Aschehoug forlag, 1958)
Anne Wichstrøm, Kvinneliv, kunstnerliv: Kvinnelige malere i Norge før 1920 (Women’s Lives, Artists’ Lives: Women painters in Norway before 1920) (Oslo: Gyldendal forlag, 1997)
Born 1845 in Holmestrand, death 1932 in Oslo
Throughout Harriet Backer's 50-year career, women's rights changed radically. Being a woman and an artist became accepted. Backer was talented and determined, inspiring a new generation of women and men in the Norwegian art world.
In Backer’s family, art and culture were part of how the children were raised. Her older sister Agathe was musically gifted and wanted to become a pianist. She had to go abroad to learn, and Harriet became her sister's traveling companion. This gave Harriet the opportunity to visit art museums and get to know the historical masters of the art world at a young age. Agathe eventually became a renowned composer and concert pianist, while Harriet became an important artist.
Art academies for men only
Backer showed an early talent and interest in art, but embarked on full-time studies rather late in life. In 1874, at 29 years, she decided to travel to Munich. The art community in Norway was small, so one had to go abroad.
The art academies in Europe were reserved for men in those days, but women could receive private tuition or attend "women's classes". During her years in Munich, Backer had several teachers. In 1878 she moved to Paris to continue her studies.
An important recognition
Being accepted for exhibition at the Salon in Paris was an important step on the path to becoming a professional artist. In 1880, Backer was accepted with the painting Solitude. Hundreds of artists exhibited at these exhibitions at the same time, and the paintings hung close together, from floor to ceiling. The jury thought Backer's painting was excellent, and she was honoured with a diploma, known as a Mention honorable.
Contrasts in light and colours
In Munich, Backer learned to paint in a style characterised by a high level of detail and dark colours. We see this for example in Avskjeden (The Farewell), from 1878.
When she came to Paris, she was greatly inspired by impressionism. In one of her best-known paintings, Blått interiør (Blue Interior), painted five years after Avskjeden, the transformation of her painting style is evident. Clear and pure colours dominate the composition. From this point on, the interaction between figure, interior and light effects became a theme that permeated Backer's paintings. How to create contrasts between the light indoors and outdoors? How are colours perceived in lamplight compared to daylight? She approached her subjects with these issues in mind.
Portraits and interiors
Backer started her career with a desire to become a portrait painter. She painted many friends and acquaintances, and also received portrait commissions. But it is her interior scenes she has become best known for. She painted interiors from all walks of life – from farmhouses to bourgeois living rooms. For the most part, Backer's rooms are populated by women.
I think I serve the cause of women best by concentrating like a man
– Harriet Backer
In 1888, Backer established herself in Norway, and from 1892 to 1910 ran a painting school in Kristiania. She became a popular teacher. Her openness to new ideas in both art and social development was appreciated. She sympathised with the women's movement, but did not actively participate in political work.
In the women's cause, Backer was recognised more for what she did than what she said – as a renowned artist she was an important role model. Together with friend and fellow artist Kitty Kielland, she was a pioneer who paved the way for women to have the opportunity to choose art as a career path.
About Harriet Backer:
- Born 21 January 1845 in Holmestrand.
- Lived in Paris in 1878–1888.
- Started an art school in Kristiania in the 1890s. Backer’s students included Nikolai Astrup, Halfdan Egedius, Harald Sohlberg, Henrik Lund, Helga Ring Reusch, Astri Welhaven and Sara Fabricius (Cora Sandel).
- Died 25 March 1932 in Oslo.
- Solitude (1878–1880)
- Blått interiør (Blue Interior) (1883)
- På blekevollen (Bleaching) (1886–1887)
- Ved lampelys (By Lamplight) (1890)
- Barnedåp i Tanum kirke (Baptism at Tanum Church) (1892)
- Inngangskoner (Women in Church) (1892)
- Interiør fra Uvdal stavkirke (Interior from Uvdal Stave Church) (1909)