Martin Harris, Fannie Engraves a Copper Plate, ca. 1947. Gelatin silver print, 9 15/16 x 8 13/16 in. (25.2 x 20.8 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Robert Flynn Johnson, 2004.140.7.5. Courtesy estate of Martin Harris.
Harriet Berger Nurkse, Figures in a Garden, 1950. Engraving and aquatint, 9 15/16 x 17 ½ in. (25.3 x 44.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, New York. Dick S. Ramsay Fund, 50.31. Courtesy estate of Harriet Berger Nurkse.

8. Harriet Berger Nurkse

Life Dates1916-1978
Place of BirthParis, France
Place of DeathPrinceton, NJ, USA
Birth NameEugénia Henriette Berger

Born “Henriette” in France to a British father and American mother, Harriet Berger graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art in 1939 before immigrating to the United States in 1940.1 Sailing from Lisbon aboard the Excambion, one of the last commercial vessels crossing the Atlantic, she met her future husband, Ragnar Nurkse (1907-1959), an Estonian-born economist who was then employed by the League of Nations. The couple dated for several years before marrying in 1946, during which time Berger lived with her parents in Englewood, New Jersey and worked as an occupational therapist with wounded soldiers. She always considered herself primarily an artist and regularly enrolled in classes at the Art Students League from 1940 to 1945, where her main focus was the graphic arts with instructors Harry Sternberg and Will Barnet.2 She enjoyed the camaraderie at the League and was particularly close with Alicia Legg, a family friend and later a curator at MoMA.3 Berger Nurkse began entering her prints into competitive exhibitions as early as 1943, participating the annuals of the Library of Congress, Society of American Etchers, and National Academy of Design. She also exhibited one intaglio print, Wounded Soldiers, in America in the War, an exhibition that took place simultaneously at twenty-six museums in October 1943.4 Likely through Legg or Fannie Hillsmith, another close friend, Berger Nurkse began working at Atelier 17 during the late 1940s She exhibited with the workshop twice (1947 and 1949), and in 1950 was awarded a Brooklyn Museum purchase prize for Figures in a Garden (1950). This surrealistic print is divided into four parts showcasing different intaglio techniques: deeply bitten etched lines of the figure at far left, the engraved lines of the one at far right, and a combination of stop-out varnish and aquatint for the central two. After this activity, Berger Nurkse’s professional career went quiet. Her husband died unexpectedly in 1959, leaving her to raise their two sons. Settling in central New Jersey, she eventually reactivated her artistic practice and was a member of the Princeton Art Association.


  1. Thank you to Dennis Nurkse for speaking with me about his mother and her time at Atelier 17. Unless otherwise noted, biographical information comes from our conversations in 2016 and 2017.
  2. See student registration card, Art Students League, New York.
  3. In an oral history, Alicia Bell Legg explained that she and Berger Nurkse became friends through their mothers, who both resided in Englewood, New Jersey. Alicia Legg, Oral History Program, interview by Sharon Zane, June 5, 1991, 13, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
  4. Ellen G. Landau, Artists for Victory (Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1983), 16. The Library of Congress holds an impression of Wounded Soldiers in its collection.