Women visiting the Palace of Fine Arts at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 must have been delighted to see at least one work with which they could all identify, painted by a relatively unknown Norwegian artist, Harriet Backer. It shows that momentous event when a new mother carries her infant over the threshold of the church for their christening.
Backer places the viewer inside the church, looking both outward and inward. The left of the canvas takes the eye deep, through the heavy church door to the outside world, where the mother is bringing her child in for their baptism. The rich green light of that outside world colours the door and its wood panelling, and the floorboards and perspective projection draw the baptismal party in.
At the right, two women are sat in an enclosed stall waiting for the arrival of the party. One has turned and partly opened the door to their stall in her effort to look out and see them enter church. Backer controls the level of detail and looseness to brilliant effect, ensuring that we always see just what she wants us to, enough to bring the image to life, but never so much that the eye is lost in the irrelevant.
She had laboured long and hard to get this painting just right, and she has. From the new grandmother accompanying her daughter and grandchild, past the elderly man standing just inside the doorway, to the two women sat in the pew, and the wonderful rich colours of the church interior – it’s perfect, her masterwork.
Backer’s composition is original, but she does have a debt, usually attributed to a painting by the German Wilhelm Leibl, whose work she had become familiar with when she was studying in Germany, so it’s said.
Leibl also laboured long and hard over these Three Women in Church. He started the painting in 1878, out in the country, where he was out of place. He’d been brought up in Cologne and trained in Munich, and this was probably his first sustained exposure to country people and their ways. Each day when the weather wasn’t too vile, his three local models, dressed in the same clothes, came and sat for him. Working on just one small area of his panel at a time, Leibl painstakingly built the work over a period of three years.
For Leibl, hands were the most important part of the body, particularly among these three women in their moments of prayer. Their ages and life stories are told not just in their faces, but above all in their hands. He once said that he wished he could paint portraits only of the sitter’s hands. It’s now recognised as Leibl’s greatest painting.
The only snag with this story is that Leibl completed his Three Women in Church in 1882, by which time Harriet Backer had been working in Paris for two years, where she shared a studio with compatriot Kitty Kielland. Backer remained in Paris until 1888, when she returned to Norway to run her own art school, where in 1892 she painted Christening in Tanum Church, in time for it to be selected for exhibition in Chicago the following year.
Backer may have seen Leibl’s earlier painting of an elderly farmer and a young country girl, The Ill-Matched Couple from 1876-77. But it’s hard to imagine even the most tenuous connection between this painting and Backer’s christening, unless you consider Leibl’s Three Women in Church as an intermediate, the bridge between them.
What seems to have been carefully ignored is that Harriet Backer studied in Munich under her compatriot Eilif Peterssen, who was actually seven years her junior and a major influence over her during this period, between 1874-78. At the end of that time, Peterssen, possibly after seeing Leibl’s Ill-Matched Couple the previous year, painted his earlier version of three women In the Church.
Here, as Leibl did later, Peterssen traces the ages of woman, an unusual subject in comparison to those of man, with the furthest young girl, nearest young woman, and the older widow in between.
While Backer was studying in Munich, Peterssen painted her portrait, although I have been unable to find any image of that work.
There remains one further possible Nordic connection. In 1894, just over a decade after Peterssen and Leibl’s three women in a church, the Danish artist Laurits Andersen Ring visited the Cappuccin monastery in Palermo, Sicily, where he painted a very different trio lined up in what could easily be mistaken for a pew.
Three Skulls from Convento dei Cappuccini at Palermo (1894) was unusual even by Ring’s standards, in showing three of the over eight thousand bodies of monks mummifying quietly there. After all, it’s just another rite of passage.