A backyard garden dense with verdure and framed by houses and an outbuilding forms the subject of Laura van Pappelendam’s painting Around a Birdhouse. The centrally positioned white birdhouse perched high on a pole is almost overgrown by climbing morning glory rich with purple-blue blossoms. Below, various plants partly engulf a wire fence that borders the backyard on the right. On the far side of the two houses, trees screen the horizon. Rendered in bright colors and purple shadows, van Pappelendam’s unpeopled scene suggests the stillness of midday in the heated glare of summer sunshine.
With its glimpse of weathered buildings crowded and softened by garden elements, Around a Bird House is typical of van Pappelendam’s subjects. Having long painted them in the American Southwest and rural Mexico, she turned her attention to her hometown of Keokuk, Iowa, where beginning in 1938 she spent summers with her ailing stepmother and her aunt. Around a Birdhouse depicts the backyard of their home. The many-windowed white frame building on the right served as van Pappelendam’s studio, and the fabric shown suspended over its roof was probably an awning to shelter the interior from incoming glare on bright days. Little else in the painting refers to the artist’s work, however; rather, it evokes the casual domesticity of a midwestern backyard in bountiful bloom and the artist’s affectionate attachment to this particular locale.
Around a Birdhouse is loosely painted in brushstrokes of thinly applied paint. Indeed, the white ground with which the artist prepared her canvas is clearly visible, especially in the lower part of the image; toward the right edge of the canvas, van Pappelendam left the ground exposed to render the white wall of the studio building. She used thin, dark, sketchy lines of oil paint to outline forms she completed in rapidly applied dashes of color, with a resulting effect that suggests watercolor painting, a medium in which she excelled.
With the title Back Yard this painting was shown in an exhibition van Pappelendam shared with Jean Crawford Adams in the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Room of Chicago Art,” in 1945, when it was described as “delightful” by the Chicago Tribune’s Eleanor Jewett.i
Wendy Greenhouse, PhD
i Eleanor Jewett, “Personal Card Messages Make Unusual Show,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 25, 1945.