A woman is seated on the hindmost pew of the church and turns toward the entryway, where the baptismal procession is coming closer. It is first upon closer scrutiny that the viewer discovers a man standing by the door, as well as two other women to the very right of the painting. Harriet Backer’s virtuoso skills are on fine display here, as she captures the variously illuminated surfaces as the sunlight filters into the dusky interior of the church. The view from the church interior and out into the open allows for a striking perspective.
Stylistically, the viewer’s gaze is led from the academically trained realism of the foreground to the vividly pastose impressionism of the open-air scene framed by the doorway. Backer may have been inspired here by Wilhelm Leibl’s Three Women in Church (1878–82), which she would have been able to see during her studies in Munich.
Backer’s choice of this room was nonetheless not solely motivated by formal considerations. Church interiors played a crucial role in Backer’s art, providing her with a motif that was ideally suited for combining the spiritual and national themes that typify her output in the 1890s. The romantic Tanum Church in Bærum is a recurring motif. She herself considered Christening in Tanum Church to be her masterpiece, and the painting was selected by a jury and displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
Harriet Backer studied in Munich 1874–78 and subsequently in Paris, where she lived from 1878 to 1888. She was inspired by realism, and is considered to be both a naturalist and an early impressionist. Backer was a key figure in the clique of painters who met at Fleskum Farm in Bærum during the summer of 1886.
Text: Nils Ohlsen
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0