Arthur K. Houlberg’s portrait of an elderly woman seated outdoors is a study in natural light effects, particularly in the juxtaposition of dappled shade and glaring illumination. Placed off-center in the composition, the sitter reposes placidly in a simple blue wooden chair, her bent arm resting on a tabletop. Overhead is a canopy of foliage painted in broad strokes of rich greens and blues. The white of the tablecloth and the woman’s hair and dress dominate, with accents of blue in her belt and beaded necklace echoing the tints of the chair. The gold centers of the cut flowers on the table link the foreground to the warmly colored background, where a patchwork of light greens, yellows, and white convey the blinding brilliance of full sunlight.
This is one of several paintings Houlberg made as a student in the Summer School of Painting at Saugatuck (now known as Ox-Bow), on the Lake Michigan shore in southwestern Michigan. It clearly reflects the influence of Frederick Fursman, principal instructor in the program and a teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago. At Saugatuck, Fursman encouraged his students to take advantage of summertime conditions and the school’s idyllic setting to paint the figure posed outdoors; in his own works of the late 1910s, such as Maizie under the Boughs, he focused on the flattening effects and color distortion of the model in shadow set against a brightly lit background, an approach Houlberg followed in this painting. Around 1918, Fursman also began painting character studies of local, often elderly, Saugatuck “types.” These likely influenced Houlberg’s selection of an aged woman for this work. Its close-up perspective emphasizes the subject’s individuality, which the artist further captured in a related photographic snapshot. Houlberg thus reinterpreted the woman-in-a-garden theme so popular in the previous decade among American impressionist painters, whose treatments typically featured rather generic pretty young women as complements to the fresh outdoor light and color of their settings.
In the Art Institute’s spring 1920 exhibition of paintings by Saugatuck students and instructors, Houlberg was represented by two canvases. One of them, titled Mrs. Norman, may have been this work, for Houlberg perhaps also followed Fursman’s practice of titling his character portraits for their individual sitters. No record has come to light of the title A Saugatuck Friend, which is likely a later invention.
Wendy Greenhouse, PhD