Black and white photo of seated woman
Harriet Backer
Photo: Friedrich Müller Photograph Atelier, München.

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.

Text by Vibeke Waallann Hansen, collection and exhibition curator.

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.

When the new National Museum opens in 2021 Harriet Backer will get her own room in the collection exhibition.

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.

Diploma in French
Harriet Backers "Mention Honorable".
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

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.

Woman seated in loneliness by a table
Harriet Backer, "Solitude", 1878-1880
Photo: Jacques Lathion / Nasjonalmuseet

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.
  • Important works:
    • 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)
  • 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.

Literature

  • 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 (Oslo: Gyldendal forlag, 1997)