Harriet Backer. Part 2 – The later years.

Chez Moi by Harriet Backer (1887)

Harriet Backer’s younger sister, Agathe Ursula, became a much-heralded concert pianist and composer, who at the age of twenty-eight, married the conductor and singing teacher Olaus Andreas Grøndahl in 1875, and was thereafter known as Agathe Backer Grøndahl. When she was eighteen years of age, she studied composition under Theodor Kullak at the Akademie der Tonkunst in Berlin, where she lived together with her sister Harriet Backer. Maybe it was because of her time with her sister and during her concert tours that a number of Harriet’s paintings featured people playing the piano. Her most memorable work with that motif is her 1887 painting, Chez Moi which is housed at the Nordnorske Museum in Tromso. Once again, we are aware of Harriet using a similar motif to some of her earlier works, a single person in a room lit by light emanating from a large window. This once again highlights her accomplished technique of depicting light and shadow and how various items in the room are affected by the conditions of the light. Look at the picture frame high-up close to the window. We cannot see the painting in the frame but what she has cleverly depicted is the reflection of the slatted blind on the glass of the picture frame. Again, I would ask you to carefully study the details in this work and avoid taking things for granted. Look how she has managed to depict the texture of the green velvet chair seats. Look carefully at the chairs themselves and the way she has, through clever use of colours, brought the wood to life. The trompe l’oiel affect she has created with the depiction of the music sheets on the piano by use of shading gives them a real three-dimensional look. There is so much detail in this work which needs to be studied. Never just glance over a work of art. Take your time and examine every facet and then you will be able to appreciate the talent of a painter. It is interesting to note she never painted her sister Agathe at the piano, albeit, she did use her as a model in some of her other paintings.

Storrebror spiller (Big Brother Playing) by Harriet Backer (1890)

Harriet Backer was awarded the State Travel Scholarship for three years in 1886.   Whilst staying in Paris she was part of the artists’ circle which centred around the well-respected Norwegian novelist, poet, and playwright, Jonas Lie and his wife Thomasine Lie. Their daughter Asta Lie Isaachsen was a model in several of Harriet’s pictures, such as in the painting Chez moi. The painting went on to be awarded with a silver medal at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1889. In 1890, it was purchased for the National Gallery in Oslo.

Landskap fra Ulvin (Landscape from Ulvin) by Harriet Backer (1889)

Although Harriet based herself in Paris, she returned to Norway each summer and explored the beautiful landscapes for inspiration for her paintings. One example of this genre was her 1889 plein air work, Landskap fra Ulvin (Landscape from Ulvin). It is a work which encapsulates the wonderful colours of the intense Norwegian summer. This work is housed in the Drammens Museum in Drammen, a town to the south-west of Oslo. Sadly, very few of her landscapes are in public galleries, most being in private hands.

Landscape in Cernay-la-Ville by Harriet Backer (1887)

It was not just the Scandinavian landscapes which Harriet encapsulated in her paintings I particularly like a painting she completed around 1887 entitled Landscape in Cernay-la-Ville. Cernay-la-Ville is a small town which lies ten miles south-west of Paris and lies in the heart of the Forest of Rambouillet. In this landscape work Backer has reverted to her favoured motif of adding a single figure to a depiction. The various greens she has used in the painting are contrasted by the white bark of the silver birch trees. It is a painting which oozes calmness and tranquillity.

To barn og tregruppe (Two children and a group of trees) by Harriet Backer (1885)

To barn og tregruppe (Two children and a group of trees) was another of her plein air works and is a prime example of her summer landscapes. Painting en plein air was very popular at the time in Paris. It could well be that she started the depiction outside and then took it back to her studio to complete it.

Drying Clothes by Harriet Backer (1890)

In 1888, she moved back to Norway permanently and settled in Sandvika, in the municipality of Baerum, on the outskirts of Christiania and it was here that she started giving private painting lessons. This led to her running a much sought-after painting school from 1889 until 1912, where many aspiring artists of the next generation studied. Her training proved to be of great importance as a link between the French academic tradition which she was a part of, and the new approach of the younger painters. Harriet Backer held a special position in Scandinavian art. Her art linked the realism of the late 1800s and important modern directions art took at the beginning of the 20th century.

Tanum church in Bærum, Norway

It was during this period in her life that she focused on interiors, including those illuminated by lamplight. 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. In 1892 whilst living in Sandvika she visited the nearby church of Tanum and it was the interior of this church which was to be featured in a number of her best-known paintings.   Tanum church is one of two medieval churches in Bærum, not far from Sandvika. It was built in around 1100-1130. It is a Romanesque church, with frescoes from the 1300s, and medieval sculptures.

Christening in Tanum Church, (Harriet Backer, 1892)

Christening in Tanum Church (Barnedåp i Tanum kirke) is Harriet Backer’s 1892 oil on canvas painting, which she exhibited at the Autumn Exhibition (Høstutstillingen) in Oslo during that year. A year later the painting was exhibited at the Chicago World Exposition. It is currently on display at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.  The painting depicts the interior of the church where a christening is about to be held. Our viewpoint is from the darkened centre aisle of the church looking towards the open doors, through which the strong light of day can be seen streaming in. In the background we see two ladies and a man standing at the doorway waiting to enter. The lady in the centre is cradling a baby in her arms as she walks towards the church. In the right foreground of the painting we see a woman sitting on the bench at the back of the church eagerly turning around to witness the arrival of the christening party. Look at the various tones of brown Backer has used to depict the floor and pews and how it contrasts well to the blue and white structure behind the pews.

Entrance Wives by Harriet Backer, (1892)

Another of Harriet Backer’s paintings featuring Tanum Church with a connection to christening and childbirth is her 1892 work entitled Inngangskoner which literally translates to Entrance Wives but is often simply referred to as Women in Church. This painting depicts a traditional local custom where mothers were blessed before attending church services after having given birth. After a child’s birth, women could not step into the church room without having been blessed and cleansed by the priest.  The fact that it was painted around the same time as Christening in Tanum Church could mean that the two paintings were pendant pieces. Once again, this painting by Backer is a study of light and shade and how light affects that which it falls upon. To do this she has used a muted palette to give emphasis to the shaded area, where the women kneel with heads bowed in prayer, in stark contrast opposed to the eruption of colours as daylight hits the church windows illuminating part of the interior. Harriet Backer’s artistic skills are on display here, in the way she captures the variously illuminated surfaces as the sunlight strains into the shadowy interior of the church. The view from the church interior and out into the open allows for a striking perspective.

The Library of Thorvald Boeck by Harriet Backer (1902)

Harriet Backer received a commission for a painting depicting a room in the house of Thorvald Olaf Boeck. It was not just any room in his house but his beloved library. Boeck was a Norwegian civil servant, and book collector who was known for assembling what was the largest private library of its time in Norway.

The Sandvik River by Harriet Backer (1890)

Harriet Backer’s output during her lifetime was quite small, with approximately 180 pictures. It must be remembered that she started late and her painting methodology was to work thoroughly and slowly. Notwithstanding this, as early as the mid-1880s, she was acknowledged as one of the leading artists of her generation and in recent years, her paintings have drawn considerable international attention.

In Trefoldighets Church by Harriet Backer (1908)

Harriet Backer was not only a practicing artist but played an important role in the cultural life of her country. For twenty years between 1898 and 1918 Harriet was a member of Oslo’s National Gallery’s board and purchasing committee, and in 1914 she was elected member of the jury for the jubilee exhibition in Christiania, as well as being part of the jury for the decoration of Bergen Stock Exchange in 1918.

In 1889 she became an honorary member of The Norwegian Student Society. In 1908, she received the King’s merit medal in gold, and in 1925 she was appointed knight of the 1st class of St. Olav’s Order, the same year she was elected to the Academy of the Free Arts in Stockholm and received the State Artist’s salary from 1921.

Harriet Backer (1845-1932)

Harriet Backer, who never married, died in Oslo on March 25th, 1932, aged 87. She is buried with her parents at Vår Frelsers Cemetery (Cemetery of our Saviour) in Oslo, a resting place for many noble Norwegians, such as Edvard Munch and Henrik Ibsen. The Norwegian sculptor, Ada Madssen designed a bronze statue of Harriet Backer and her sister Agathe Backer Grøndahl which was erected in 1982 in their hometown of Holmestrand.

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