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Monday, December 11, 2017

Harriet Backer

In a Farmhouse,  Harriet Backer
There's a tired old saying that "Money can't buy happiness." There are those who would argue both for and against such a definitive statement, and in the final analysis the validity of such words depends upon one's definition of "happiness." The price of happiness also becomes a factor as well. It keeps going up, and as it does, the amount of happiness it might buy seldom increases proportionally. There are even those who would also point out that money sometimes buys unhappiness. With few exceptions money also changes people...for better or worse (usually the latter). One item money can buy, which over the long term, may surpass happiness, or at least contribute to it considerably, is a good education, if not for oneself then for the next generation. A good education allows you to choose the direction of your life, rather than simply following the money trail in passive acceptance wherever it might lead.
A postage stamp sampling of the work of Harriet Backer. A more detailed compilation can be found in the video at the bottom.
The Norwegian painter, Harriet Backer decided to pursue a career rather that simply accept whatever cards life dealt her. Born in 1845, it was a time when women were expected to accept the best man who showed a romantic interest in them. This choice of the most attractive man, one most likely to succeed, was virtually the first, the one, and only really important choice she would ever make. Harriet Backer came from a well-to-do upper middle-class family. She was one of four girls, the daughter of a ship-owning merchant. She started life in a small southeastern coastal village in Norway named Holmestrand. Virtually everyone in the family had talent and, better still, the time and money to develop them.
Harriet Backer never married. As an artist, she was always too busy.
In 1857, when she was just twelve, Harriet's parents moved to Christiania (now Oslo) where her father started the company Becker and Backer. After a while, he pulled out of the business, and when the merchant house in Holmestrand went bankrupt in 1878, the family's economy was reduced to chaos. Harriet Backer was to struggle financially until 1908, when Olaf Schou (a wealthy art collector and philanthropist) awarded her a lifetime scholarship of 1000 kroners per year. Her childhood home was cultivated, and the four gifted daughters were given the opportunity to excel in reading and, most of all, their music interests. The unusual music talent of the younger sister Agathe was soon discovered, and Harriet Backer's own development in the early adolescent years was characterized by the family's efforts to give the sister a professional music education. Thus she accompanied Agathe on many of her foreign travels. This was obviously culturally enriching, but at the same time gave her a late start on her art studies. (She had once wanted to be a novelist.) Her father was very religious, but in a free-spirited direction that also influenced his daughters.

Big Brother Player, 1890, Harriet Backer
In Christiania, Harriet Backer went to Mrs. Autenrieth's school, where she picked up great language skills. After graduation in 1860, at her own discretion, she began to work in the women's class at J. F. Eckerberg's school of painting. In 1863 she completed a one-year government course at Hartvig Nissen's school, thus gaining the highest formal education available to women at the time. In the following years, she was occasionally engaged as a teacher at Autenrieth and Hartvig Nissens kindergarten schools. During her stay in her home country, she resumed her art studies. During the late 1880 she was a student of Christian Brown. Then from about 1871 to 1874, she was a regular student in the classes of Bergslien's school of art in Christiania. It was about that time the desire to educate herself at the professional painter began to take shape. Along with Lille Rødhette, she was rated as Bergslien's most talented female student. When she studied Munich in 1874-78, it was the first to educate herself as a portrait painter.

The Farewell, 1877, Harriet Backer
Later, Backer turned her interest to the figure in the interior, where the room itself, and not least of all the lighting problem, eventually became the main role. Women at that time did not have access to the art academy in Munich, and were therefore dependent on private teachers. A few pictures from 1877, where motifs are added from the past, clearly show the influence of the Munich environment in general, and Eilif Peterssen in particular. In addition to the careful rendering of material qualities, particular emphasis is placed on the psychological characteristic. This also applies to the painting, Divorce (above), where she shows a young woman who is seen parting with her parents. The painting is sometimes called The Farewell. But there's something new. For the first time Harriet Backer places the scene in an environment from her own home. At the same time, the interior has gained a more prominent place. Harriet continued her work on the interior on the same summer in Solitude, where the motif is a farmhouse in Schliersee at the foot of the Bavarian Alps (top).

Scandinavian Scene, 1890, Harriett Backer
In 1888, Harriet Backer moved back to Norway permanently. There she settled in Sandvika, outside of Christiania (Oslo). Some of her finest paintings were created over the next five years. She began to paint interiors by lamplight, resulting in long shadows which gave the rooms a sense of mystery. At this time she also began to paint church interiors. This was a new subject for her. She spent several years completing the painting Christening in Tanum Church from 1892. Harriet began to give private painting lessons and in 1892 developed into a school where she taught until 1910. She focused on encouraging and teaching female artists, recalling how hard it was for her to obtain instruction. During the summers she always travelled in search of new subject matter. Backer always staged her interiors, using models and choosing props for the scenes, including those in churches. During her career she painted 180 paintings, mostly of farm and church interiors. It is interesting to note she never did paint her sister, Agathe, at the piano, although she did use her as a model in some of her paintings. Harriet Backer died in 1932 at the age of eighty-seven.

Chez Moi, 1881, Harriet Backer
Click the video below for a visual compendium of Harriet Backer's work.


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