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The Genius of Harriet Backer

Harriet Backer - Blue Interior - Google Art Project
Blue Interior, 1883

Born on the 21 of January in 1845, Harriet Backer was a Norwegian painter known for her introspective interiors and vivid colors. Having studied in Europe with various artists and travelled with her sister Agathe, a noted pianist and composer of the time, Backer became an influential artist pioneering both an Impressionist and Natural Realism. Backer travelled extensively not only throughout Europe but studied in her native land, and in Munich and Paris. Her work is characterized by a genre style of daily life infused with light and color not often seen, especially in her often thick brushwork which is sometimes reminiscent of her Swedish contemporary Anders Zorn, born twenty years after her. Despite not painting portraits or nudes, Backer's allure is in being able to articulate simplicity in a way that draws the viewer in, always experimenting with her brushstrokes and tonality...a poet of the people.

In Blue Interior above, we can clearly see how Backer often used large brushes with minimal blending. Look at the wall next to the woman sewing and see the yellowish green tones scumbled over the cool grey. Normally this would be considering quite an artistic license but in her hands it feels warm and natural. Even the leaves of the plant seem to vibrate with her brush. Above the wall into the ceiling Backer uses cool greys that, as we look toward the left, fuse into muted, warm tones, whereas on the right side just above the curtains those soft blue-grey strokes add incredible mood to this dimly-lit interior. I like how the potted flowers on the shelf below the mirror are indicated with short, vertical strokes that accent the composition without detracting from it. This is the kind of work that needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

Chez Moi, detail, 1887
see the image in the Nasjonalmuseet, Norway

Although this version is not as clear and brushstrokes are not visible, Backer's powerful sense of presence shines. I love the reflections of the window on the picture frames hanging on the wall. We really get the sensation of being in this room, listening to the woman play piano on a quiet afternoon. In the original on the museum website, we can see how Backer paints the floor with an explosion of muted yellow on top of a panoply of browns, with accents of red and blue. The piano itself is a violet-colored, and the flat and sharp keys are gently side-lit from the sun, yet under the woman that shadow on the floor is true Impressionism, a motley mixture of more cool and warm tones, even mixing her own darks. The wall next to the window is a fascinating medley of green and blue grays on top of yellows. And the curtains themselves reveal her hatch-like brushwork in those amazing grays. Backer takes us back to the late 1800's yet makes us feel right at home at the same time.

Harriet Backer - By Lamp Light - Google Art Project
By Lamp Light, 1890

Love this painting. That wall glows with vertical brushstrokes that descend in brightness yet increase in hue as they rise upward. A more typical depiction of this type of subject matter would have probably been more tenebrist, with dark walls behind the woman to enhance the drama but here, Backer seems to invent her own chiaroscuro and decides to scumble over those walls with complementary purple. She indicates the texture of the wall by showing the separation of the boards, but our eyes are drawn to the woman's face, which Backer paints with just the right chroma of grey on the shadow of her face. She tries to thread the needle with a calm demeanor under that candle light in a way that is almost hypnotic. I like the purplish tones around the sewing machine and how Backer indicates this with frenetic brushstrokes. The reflection of the light on the sewing table is also painted with astute attention to values. Backer has some of the most distinctive brushwork I've seen...rivalling even Van Gogh himself.

Harriet Backer - The Farewell - Google Art Project
The Farewell, 1878

This piece lacks the individuality of her signature brushwork, being an earlier work, but it's brilliance is no less impressive. See how Backer uses hands in this narrative to tell the story— each character is doing something different with their body language and hands: the mover, the weeping mother, and the way the pouting daughter holds her father's hands while her other hand is out of our field of view as if to suggest she will soon be out of her family's view also. Note also how she bookends the composition by alternating the direction of both mover and mother with daughter and father. Even the way the dinner table is shortened in the frame suggests movement and by the remaining bun on the table further she contrasts the reluctance to eat with the reluctance to let their daughter leave.

Backer may not be a household name in the art world but her work is definitely not the level of amateur. This was an artist of real insight and depth into society and the ability to listen, a fading skill especially in our very noisy modern 21st century. Harriet is much more than just another notable female artist to discover. She is a light, a painter we can study and learn from to develop our unique voice as observers not only of people, or places, or masters of Impressionism...but observers of presence. And life.

Portrett av Harriet Backer (1845-1932) (9390378423)
Harriet Backer, ca.1900's


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