Backer, Harriet (1845–1932)

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Backer, Harriet (1845–1932)

Norwegian painter whose luminous interiors evoked great acclaim. Born on January 21, 1845, in Holmestrand, on the Oslofjord, Norway; died in February 1932; second of four daughters, one of whom wasAgathe Backer-Grondahl , of Consul Nils Backer (a shipowner) and Sophie (Petersen) Backer (originally the Backer family came to Norway from Holland in the 17th century; another branch of Backer's relatives originated in Denmark, emigrating in the 19th century); studied in Germany and Italy, as well as Paris with Bonnat.

Known for her paintings of interiors from all levels of society—Paris salons, Breton and Norwegian farmhouses, her own background, and in particular the interiors of Norwegian churches—all of them with figures, mainly of women: By Lamplight (1890); Blue Interior (1892); Baptism at Tanum Church (1892, at Washington University, St. Louis.); also known for her studio in Christiania where she taught younger painters (1889–1912); a torchlight procession in her honor on the occasion of her 85th birthday was organized by the Artists' Society (1930); was decorated with the Order of St. Olav.

Harriet Backer was born at Holmestrand, a shipping center at the Christianiafjord, as the second of four daughters. Unusually well educated for her time, she began drawing lessons at age six. When the family moved to Christiania (now Oslo) in 1857, her parents encouraged her artistic aspirations and enrolled her in Johan Fredrik Eckersberg's school from 1861 to 1865. Subsequently, she became a student at Christian Brun's institute from 1867 to 1868 and at Knut Bergslien's painting academy from 1872 to 1874. She spent several winters in Berlin and Weimar and in 1870 had traveled to Italy to copy old masters. She also studied in Munich in 1874 and 1875.

Inspired by French Naturalism, Backer moved to Paris in 1878, where she would stay for ten years and receive not only instruction but four large scholarships. She made her debut in the Paris Salon in 1880. The following decade was divided between France and Norway. In Norway, she was in the circle of leading Norwegian painters (such as Erik Werenskiold and Ludvig Munthe) and the foremost Norwegian writers of the day. She returned to Norway for good in 1888, painting during the summer in the valleys north of Christiania with another Norwegian artist Kitty Kielland , and spending the rest of the year teaching young artists at her own painting school which she ran until 1912.

Kielland, Kitty L. (1843–1914)

Norwegian painter. Born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1843; died in 1914; studied at the art academies of Karlsruhe and Munich; also studied in Paris.

After a few drawing lessons in her hometown of Stavanger, Norway, Kitty Kielland attended the art academy in Karlsruhe before entering Munich's art academy in 1875 where one of her tutors was fellow Norwegian Eilif Peterssen. In 1879, she and artist Harriet Backer moved to Paris. For the next nine years, they worked there and took field trips. They also spent the summers of 1886 and 1887 in Fleskum, Norway, with a group of Norwegian painters. Influenced by Impressionism in her treatment of atmosphere, light, and air, Kielland concentrated on plein-air painting, a style developed chiefly in France in the mid-19th century.

Backer's production is relatively small, but her Norwegian interiors are famous for their luminous quality. Blue Interior, for example, painted in Paris in 1883 and shown in the Christiania Exhibition the same year, was a great success. It represents a sitting woman suffused in light from an unseen window; light falls on her white knitting, the red chest, the leaves of a plant, a painting on the wall, and her figure in blue. Critics praised its "courageous harmony of blue color and blue light" which imbued the painting with a mood of contemplation and silence.

Backer had spent the summers of 1886 and 1887 with a group of Norwegian Naturalist painters at Christian Skredsvig's farm at Fleskum. Unlike her colleagues who concentrated on painting the summer night, Backer continued to focus on interiors. In the summer of 1890, she painted a group of superb small canvases, among them By Lamplight (1890) which hangs in the National Gallery in Oslo. Again she shows a self-absorbed woman, this time reading a book. Outside is darkness, but the kerosine lamp on the table where the woman sits lights up her face, along with one blue and one white wall, the wood stove, and the back of a wooden chair. As with Blue Interior, the painting has been said to show "the inaccessibility and introspection" of Backer's female subjects.

To paint, to paint! For that I was born and came into the world.

—Harriet Backer, 1927.


Haug, Kristian. "Norway's Great Woman Artist," in American-Scandinavian Review (illus.). Vol. 13, 1925, pp. 735–40.

Kielland, Else Christie. Harriet Backer. Oslo, Norway: Aschehoug, Oslo, 1958.

Lange, Marit. Harriet Backer. Oslo: Gyldendal, 1995.

Store Norske Leksikon. Oslo: Kunnskapsforlaget, 1991.

Vanedoe, Kirk. Northern Light. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.


Many of Backer's paintings are in the collections of the National Gallery, Oslo, and the Rasmus Meyer Gallery, Bergen, Norway; her papers are deposited at the University Library, Oslo.

Inga Wiehl , Yakima, Washington, and

Elizabeth Rokkan , translator, formerly Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Bergen, Norway