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Backer, Harrietlocked

(b Holmestrand, Jan 21, 1845; d Oslo, March 25, 1932).
  • Marit Lange
  •  and Thea Miller

Norwegian painter . In the 1860s and early 1870s she took lessons in drawing and painting in Christiania (now Oslo) and also travelled extensively in Europe with her sister Agathe, a composer and pianist. She copied works in major museums and took occasional art lessons; she later considered this experience to have been of fundamental importance to her artistic development. Little Red Riding Hood (1872; Oslo, N.G.) is impressive in technique, and the early portrait of her sister, Agathe Backer-Grøndahl (1874; Holmestrand, Komm.), shows a refined colour scheme. At the age of nearly 30 Backer decided to train professionally as a painter and in 1874 went to Munich. She was never attached to a particular institution, but the influence of her friend the artist Eilif Peterssen was crucial to her development. In Munich she made a thorough study of perspective, which formed a secure basis for her later work. The work she did while in Munich reflects a study of the Old Masters in museums and is characterized by a preference for the historical subjects typical of the Munich school, as well as by an interest in the psychological portrait (e.g. The Lance Bearer, 1877; priv. col.; see Kielland, p. 61) and the interior (e.g. Departure, 1878; Oslo, N.G.)

From 1878 to 1888 Backer was in Paris, where she studied (1878–80) under Léon Bonnat and Jean-Léon Gérôme. She learnt the value of confident draughtsmanship and disciplined composition, particularly with regard to the balance and arrangement of colour. These qualities, along with an impressionistic approach to colour, became characteristic of her mature work: they can be clearly seen in Chez-moi (1887; Oslo, N.G.). At this time interiors became her most important theme (her principal interest being in the play of daylight within the enclosed setting), while her pictures gradually lost their literary content. In such paintings done in Brittany as Blue Interior (1883; Oslo, N.G.) her new style is apparent; this work also reveals the direct influence of French Impressionist painters.

From 1888 Backer lived in Christiania, making only a few trips abroad. On her return to Norway the simple farmhouse interiors at first captured her interest; but in 1890 her painting took a new turn under the influence of the new Romantic current in Scandinavian painting. In a series of scenes set in churches she combined her interest in the historical interior with an evocative description of contemporary religious life, while always treating the picture as a formal exercise. Baptism in the Church at Tanum (1892; Oslo, N.G.) is usually considered her most important work. She also turned her attention to landscapes, where her interest was initially in the light of the evening sky. After about 1900 the brilliant daylight of summer came to dominate her landscape painting. The work from her last years consists chiefly of landscapes and still-lifes and is distinct in its lighter palette and generally freer style. Throughout her career Harriet Backer painted portraits, the best known being those of her friend, the painter Kitty L. Kielland (1883), and of her nephew, the composer Johan Backer-Lunde (1896; both Oslo, N.G.). Backer exhibited regularly, but worked very slowly and left only about 180 paintings. From 1889 to about 1910 she ran a well-attended art school in Christiania.


  • E. Lone: Harriet Backer (Christiania, 1924)
  • E. C. Kielland: Harriet Backer (Oslo, 1958) [cat. rais.]
  • M. Vischny: ‘Harriet Backer: A Northern Light’, Arts Magazine [prev. pubd as Arts [New York]; A. Dig.], 57 (1983), pp. 78–80
  • Harriet Backer, 1845–1932: Kitty L. Kielland, 1843–1914 (exh. cat., ed. M. Lange; Åmot, Stift. Modums Blaafarveværk, 1983) [good illustrations]
  • 1880–årene i nordisk maleri [Nordic painting in the 1880s] (exh. cat., ed. P. Grate and N.-G. Hökby; Oslo, N.G.; Stockholm, N. Mus.; Helsinki, Anderson Mus. A.; Copenhagen, Stat. Mus. Kst; 1985–6)
  • Dreams of a Summer Night: Scandinavian Painting at the Turn of the Century (exh. cat., ed. L. Ahtola-Moorhouse, C. T. Edam and B. Schreiber; London, Hayward Gal.; Düsseldorf, Kstmus.; Paris, Petit Pal.; Oslo, N.G.; 1986–7)
  • M. Lange: ‘H. Backer et K. Lange Kielland à Rochefort-en-Terre’, Artistes étrangers à Pont-Aveu, Concarneau et autres lieux de Bretagne, (Rennes, 1989)
  • At Century’s End: Norwegian Artists and the Figurative Tradition 1880/1990 (exh. cat. by S. F. Sterling, A. Wichstrøm and T. Smit; Oslo, Royal Norwegian Ministry of Affairs; Washington, DC, N. Mus. Women A., 1995)
  • M. Lange: Harriet Backer (Oslo, 1995)
  • Da Dahl a Munch: Romanticismo, realismo e simbolismo nella pittura di paesaggio norvegese (exh. cat., ed. M. Lange; Ferrara, Pal. Diamanti, 2001)
Norsk kunstnerleksikon, 4 vols (Oslo, 1982)