Harriet Backer. Part 1 – The early years

Harriet Backer

My blog today continues to look at the life and works of nineteenth-century female Scandinavian artists.  In my last blog about the Swedish painter, Julia Beck, I talked about her time in Paris and how she had shared a studio with three other Scandinavian artist, one of whom was the young Norwegian artist, Harriet Backer. HarrietBacker is now considered to be one of her generation’s foremost Norwegian painters.

Harriet Backer in her studio c. 1920.

Harriet Backer was born on January 21st 1845 in Holestrand, a small coastal town in the south-east of the country, some sixty kilometres south of Oslo. Her father was Nils Backer, a prosperous ship owner and merchant and her mother was Sofie Smith Petersen, who came from a wealthy shipping family based at Grimstad. Her father was a very religious man, but of a free-spirited direction that would also influence his daughters in later life.

Harriet Backer

Harriet was the second-born of four daughters. Her elder sister Inga Agathe was born in 1842. She also had two younger sisters, Agathe Ursula, born in 1847, who was to play an important part in Harriet’s life, and Margrethe who was born in 1851. Harriet and her sisters were brought up in a wealthy home but their parents chose a frugal lifestyle.  In 1856,when Harriet was eleven years old, her family moved from Holestrand to Christiania (now Oslo) where her father set up the company Becker and Backer. The following year, Harriet attended Mrs Wilhemine Autenrieth’s girls’ school, where she received an all-round education including learning foreign languages. She also received her first lessons in drawing and painting, with Joachim Calmeyer. In 1860 following graduation, Harriet enrolled at the women’s class at the painting school run by J. F. Eckerberg.  In 1863, at the age of eighteen, Harriet had to decide how best to earn money and enrolled on a one-year governess course at Hartvig Nissen’s school in Christiania. It was the second oldest school in the Norwegian capital and was widely deemed to be one of the country’s most prestigious and was the first higher education institution in Norway to admit females. The school was privately owned, usually by its headmasters.

Agathe Ursula Backer Grøndahl (c.1870)

Harriet’s parents encouraged their very gifted children to develop a love for the arts. The girls spent hours reading and have an interest in music and their third daughter, Agathe Ursula, was soon discovered to have an extraordinary musical talent and between 1865 and 1867 she became a pupil of Theodor Kullak and studied composition under Richard Wuerst at the Akademie der Tonkunst in Berlin where she lived together with her sister Harriet Backer who acted as her chaperone.  Through her piano playing expertise, Harriet’s sister, Agathe, now an accomplished concert pianist, travelled throughout Europe and often Harriet would accompany her and the two sisters visited such places as Berlin, Weimar, Cologne, Leipzig, Copenhagen, Florence, Rome and Naples. During the periods when Agathe was engaged in teaching music or performing Harriet would occupy herself by visiting the city art museums and often spent hours copying the paintings of the old masters. Whilst the sisters were living in Berlin, Harriet would visit the Kaiser Friedrich Museum and copy paintings under the guidance of the German painter, Alphons Holländer. Later in life when she taught art she would remind students how important it was to copy and appreciate the art of the old masters. In those earlier days accompanying her sister, besides visiting art museums and practicing her art she would dedicate a lot of her time to writing. This was the great love of her life at this time. She enjoyed writing short stories and poems and even embarked on writing a novel.

Harriet Backer’s “Aften, interiør” (Evening, interior).

Harriet would return to Christiania between periods chaperoning her sister during her European tours and when home studied art under Christian Brun. Between the years of 1871-1874, she attended the women’s class at the Knud Bergslien’s painting school. The great Norwegian painter Johan Fredrik Eckersberg had established an art school on Lille Grensen in Christiania and following his death in 1859 the school continued under the leadership of Knud Bergslien and his fellow artist, Morten Muller.

Portrait of Knud Bergslien by Johanne Mathilde Dietrichson

 

Knud Bergslien served as the director of what became known as the Bergslien School of Painting (Bergsliens Malerskole) and a whole generation of Norwegian painters became his students. It was during her time here that Harriet decided that she would become a professional artist.

 

 

Lille Rødhette (Little Red Riding Hood),by Harriet Backer (1872)

Harriet Backer proved to be an excellent student producing many exceptional works of art. One of her outstanding paintings at the time was her 1872 work entitled Lille Rødhette, although we would know it as Little Red Riding Hood. It was her amazing ability to realistically depict people, in this case, an older woman and a young girl, that led her along the path of becoming a portrait painter.

Portrait of Kitty Kielland by Harriet Backer (1880)

In 1874, twenty-nine year old Harriet left Norway and travelled to Germany and the city of Munich. At that time, Munich was the place the elite Norwegian painters gathered, and it was here that she met and became a lifelong friend with another Norwegian landscape painter, Kitty Kielland. Kielland had left Karlsruhe for Munich in 1875 where she joined a colony of Norwegian artists living there. Harriet, like Kielland, received private training in portraiture for four years with the Norwegian painter Eilif Peterssen who was based at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, but, because at that time women did not have access to the art academy in Munich, they were therefore dependent on private teachers.

The Farewell (also known as Avskjeden by Harriet Backer (1878)

Eilif Peterssen, like Harriet had received some of his artistic training at the painting school of Knud Bergslien in Christiania. Sometime during this period Harriet decided to veer away from portraiture per se and became interested in figurative drawing within the setting of an interior. A prime example of this genre was her 1878 painting entitled The Farewell (Avskjeden) which is housed in the National Museum of Art in Oslo. The painting depicts the emotional departure of a daughter from her parents. The daughter lovingly lays her hand on her father’s shoulder whilst her mother turns her back on them both as she cries in the corner. A porter carrying her luggage is also added to the scene.

Why did Harriet depict such a sad moment? The reason could well be that the year before, in January 1877, her father, Niels died and despite her mother’s wish that she should return home, Harriet told her that she would not be leaving Germany to care for her. No doubt this rebuttal surprised her mother but her daughter explained in a letter to her mother that art was her professional vocation, and it must take precedence over her duties as a daughter. Harriet had no intention of returning and living permanently in Norway as she wanted to carry on with her artistic career in Europe. One can only imagine how upset her mother would have been at that news. Maybe the painting was a reflection of Harriet’s abandoning her mother.

Solitude by Harriet Backer (1880)

Following her refusal to return to Norway, Harriet moved to Paris and shared spacious lodgings with four Scandinavian painters, the Swedish painters, Julia Beck, Hildegard Thorell, Anna Norstedt and Elizabeth Keyser and in 1880, and for the next eight years, Harriet shared an apartment with Kitty Kielland who had also left Munich for the French capital. Harriet became a pupil of Léon Bonnat and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and for a short time was tutored by Jules Bastien-Lepage. In 1880 she had her first painting exhibited at the Paris Salon. It was entitled Solitude. The depiction was of a genre she had begun to favour – figure(s) in the interior of a house. However, there was a subtle difference between this work and the previous one as this work depicted a room interior which was not fully lit and the resulting depiction was greeted well by the art critics. Harriet decided that this type of depiction was the way forward. It received an “Honourable Mention” when it was exhibited at the Salon.

Blue Interior by Harriet Backer (1883)

One of Harriet Backer’s masterpieces was painted during the time she lived in Paris. It is her 1883 work entitled Blått interiør (Blue Interior). The depiction of a woman sitting in front of a sunlit window is a similar motif to her 1880 painting Solitude. In this work, there is a definite hint of Impressionism about the work in her use of colour. The “blue-ness” is captivating.  Impressionism was very popular at this time in Paris with the seventh Impressionist exhibition being held the year before. In the work we see a young woman seated before a window through which daylight streams in illuminating the figure and parts of the room. Added to this study of light, we have the mirror in the background in which we see reflections of items in the room.  The model for Harriet’s painting was a fellow Norwegian artist and close friend, Asta Nørregard who had been attending classes with Harriet.

..…………………………………….to be continued

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

One thought on “Harriet Backer. Part 1 – The early years”

  1. I have to thank you a million times for this gift of art that you share so generously. I’m not one to comment much, but I avidly look forward to these posts!

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