Jacob Adriaensz Backer was born in the Frisian seaport of Harlingen in 1608 or 1609 to the Mennonite baker Adriaen Tjercksz (ca. 1575–1626) and Hilk Folckerts (d. ca. 1610). His mother died soon thereafter, and his father took a second wife, Elsje Roelofs (ca. 1576–1614), the widow of a baker, in Amsterdam in 1611. Tjercksz moved with his family into De Gloeiende Oven, the bakery of Elsje’s late husband on the Nieuwendijk. Jacob Backer grew up among fellow believers, as well as among several of Amsterdam’s most famous history painters, including Claes Moyaert (ca. 1592–1655) and Jan Pynas (1581/2–1631). The workshop of Pynas, most likely Backer’s first teacher, was less than one hundred meters from his parental home.1
Following his father’s death in 1626, the eighteen-year-old Backer returned to the province of Friesland to study and work under the Mennonite history painter Lambert Jacobsz (ca. 1598–1636) in Leeuwarden. They knew each other well, for Jacobsz had lived on the Nieuwendijk diagonally opposite the Backers until 1620.2 Jacobsz involved Backer closely in his workshop production from the very beginning, which is why Backer’s early work is often difficult to distinguish from that of his second master.3 In Leeuwarden, Backer worked for a few years together with Govaert Flinck (1615–60), who started out as an apprentice under Jacobsz around 1629. Backer also became acquainted with the famous Frisian portraitist Wybrand de Geest (1592–ca. 1664), whose workshop was around the corner from Jacobsz’s. De Geest painted a portrait of Jacob Backer (now lost), which Backer’s half brother Dirck (1612–52) owned.4
Backer returned to Amsterdam, possibly in 1632, but certainly by 1633. In that year, he and his brother Tjerck signed a notarial document as “inwoonders deser stede” (inhabitants of this city).5 Whether Backer established himself immediately as an independent painter is not known. In any case, his move to Amsterdam was not related to a period of study with Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), as has long been assumed. This misunderstanding is based on an incorrect interpretation of a comment in Arnold Houbraken’s Schouburgh regarding Backer’s departure from Leeuwarden.6
In Amsterdam, Backer (who never married), probably moved in with his brother Tjerck, who had taken over their father’s bakery on the Nieuwendijk in 1626. Tjerck would later move to the Nieuwezijds Achterburgwal. Backer regularly sought the company of the landscape painter Steven van Goor (1608–ca. 1660), a fellow former pupil of Jan Pynas. He also knew Thomas de Keyser (1596/7–1667), who painted his portrait, now known only from a print by Theodor Matham (1605/6–76).7 Another good friend was Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1598–1657), whose portrait Backer painted, along with that of Breenbergh’s wife.8 Naturally, Backer also knew Govaert Flinck—his old friend from their Leeuwarden years—with whom he regularly drew after live models, as evidenced by some fine studies of nudes that were clearly done during shared sessions.
In the 1640s, together with Flinck and Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613–70), Backer was in great demand among Amsterdam’s elite, in large part because he had an exceptionally rapid manner of working that allowed him to produce paintings more cheaply than his competitors. His swiftness led Joachim von Sandrart (1606–88) to recount in his Teutsche Academie (1675) the oft-cited anecdote about a lady who traveled in the morning from Haarlem to Amsterdam to sit for Backer. He painted her portrait so quickly that she returned home that same evening with the completed likeness under her arm.9 Backer was never short on success or acclaim during his lifetime. Between 1634 and 1644, he earned several substantial official commissions, including the celebrated group portrait of the regentesses of the Amsterdam Orphanage, two splendid militia pieces for the Kloveniersdoelen, and an allegorical scene for the chimneypiece of the New Gallery of Buren Castle for Stadholder Frederick Henry.10
Backer taught several gifted painters in Amsterdam, including Abraham van den Tempel (1622/3–72), the son of his own master Lambert Jacobsz. Around 1640, Van den Tempel worked in Backer’s workshop, along with Adam Camerarius (d. ca. 1666/86) of Groningen, Louis Vallée (d. 1653), and Jan van Noordt (1623/4–after 1676). In the late 1640s, these students were succeeded by Jan de Baen (1633–1702), Jan van Neck (ca. 1635–1714), and Adriaen Backer (1635/6–1684), Jacob’s highly talented nephew, who, like his uncle, would become a leading portrait and history painter. Jacob joined the Remonstrant congregation in Amsterdam in June 1651—three months before Govaert Flinck did so—and died shortly thereafter, on 27 August 1651. He was buried a few days later in a family grave in the Noorderkerk.