Harriet Backer. Every Atom is Colour

National Museum, Norway

Showcasing a painter who was a master of light, colour and a sense of place

Exhibition Design

Nissen Richards Studio’s first project for Norway’s National Museum is a temporary exhibition on the life and work of Harriet Backer. A Norwegian artist, born in 1845, Harriet Backer was one of the country’s most significant artists, challenging  men’s domination of the arts and opening up paths for other women into the fields of art and social development.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the National Museum and Kode, and is supported by Sparebankstiftelsen DNB, Bergesenstiftelsen, H. Westfal-Larsen and hustru Anna Westfal-Larsens Almennyttige Fond, Yvonne og Bjarne Rieber, and Ragnhild Willumsen Grieg and Per Grieg Jr. It will travel to the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris before its final stop is Kode in Bergen in spring 2025.

With a large number of paintings on show, visitors see that many of Backer’s paintings are of interiors, where she explores the effects of natural light in clear intense colours. When, in 1883, she exhibited Blue Interior for the first time, Norwegian art historian Andreas Aubert captured the essence of her style with the words “Every atom is colour”.

By painting real life in everyday settings, her paintings are not only aesthetically striking, but a great social record of Norwegian life. Backer sought out private homes, small farmhouses and church interiors, portraying people in the spaces where they lived, worked, and felt at ease. Nonetheless, her early ambition had been to become a portrait painter, and examples of her portraits are also present, including her only self-portrait.

The exhibition concept was to go on a journey with the artist, using colours, light and architectural shapes inspired by her paintings and display them within a built interior space. Strong vistas through the space include a church structure at its centre. The design permits plenty of space to focus on individual paintings, using light, windows and framing that mimic architecture to house the works. A ‘pause’ point was also created within a lightbox structure, with a beautiful bespoke table at its centre, where people can sit and draw, with a number of objects on display for inspiration. The designs are displayed within the spectacular light hall within the newly built museum. The designs created a series of lower, interior spaces, that mirror the proportions and scale from her paintings, whilst also lowering the lighting track, and creating more intimacy, and controlling the natural daylight. At points the full height of the lighthall is used, to create more drama.

The exhibition’s themes move through Harriet Backer’s beginnings in figure and portrait work; her treatment of colour and perspective; sacred spaces, rooms and rituals; still life paintings and the importance of quiet rooms; music and sketches. Each themed area features strikingly different coloured walls, with beautiful light and arched vistas making the visitor’s passage through the exhibition one of delight and surprise.


National Museum, Norway




Exhibition Design

photography: Gareth Gardner