ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 8 Helga Haugan Dean
Every artist in Chicago during the course of A Century of Progress felt duty-bound to paint something “significant.” Out of the hundreds of pictures that have been exhibited, only one it seems to me, is completely satisfying. Helga Haugan Dean’s “Poor Little Feet.” Frivolous if you like—but a vivid flash of frivolity, shot at high voltage, is apt to tip the scales against tons of patient plodding.
Mrs. Dean’s little Hungarian maid came home one evening from the fair and proceeded to take off a shoe that had grown too small pounding the burning pavements. That was in 1933, before anybody thought of spotting the grounds with the benches that relieved conditions the second summer.
“Hold it!” commanded Mrs. Dean—and “Poor Little Feet” was born.
Lest you doubt the nationality of the model, be it known that the maid is a blonde Hungarian and the color of her hair has no effect in checking the rate of her gypsy pulses. Mrs. Dean admits she may have projected some of her own cool Norwegian nature into the model when painting “Poor Little Feet,” giving her an appearance of stolidity—“but then the gypsy was tired.”
Mrs. Dean is that way. She is of American birth and she “feels American” but her ancestral traits are always stirring uneasy within her. Born in Milwaukee and content to live in Chicago, her “subconscious” is ever restlessly dreaming of mountains and fjords. She escapes now and again to the Massachusetts coast and to the mountains of California: usually, however, as a tourist and not with sketchbook in hand. During her father’s life, she went occasionally with him to Norway, but to play, not to work.
Mrs. Dean’s father was Hauman Haugan, comptroller and land commissioner for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St Paul Railroad. With about a score of other Christiana citizens, he emigrated to Canada to farm on a rather extensive scale. He didn’t get very far in his three years of farming, but he did come to know land, and as buyer for his railroad in later years he was extraordinarily successful. He was a diplomat—he found often that a silk dress presented to the woman of the house that had to be abandoned in the interest of “right of way” for the extension of the railroad was more effective than an ouster suit. Mrs. Dean, as her friends are aware, has inherited this trait, along with her obsession for mountains and fjords.
Her mother was a woman of fine culture and decisive opinion. Sometimes in the midst of a play, she would get up abruptly, corral her daughters and her husband, and walk out of the theater rather than expose the girls to a stupid performance. Those were days before the movies, when such an exit was noticeable. This trait Mrs. Dean hasn’t inherited—she is long-suffering. But when she explodes, she is her mother’s girl.
It was from her mother that she inherited her “art.” Her father wanted her to grow up “as girls should” to be a model housewife. Her mother was something of a painter—flowers on glass. Some of these pictures are still extant, preserved, backed with white silk that brings out the delicacy of their color.
Helga Haugan began her “art career” at 10 in the schools of Milwaukee under a German instructor. She faithfully did her set tasks, but also she painted after school exciting battle scenes—battles of the Hittites and the Ammonites from the Old Testament. She loves still the grand old barbaric heroes of the Hebrews from Tubal Cain to the late prophets.
Noting her progress, her mother arranged for her to come to Chicago to the Art Institute, commuting weekly from Milwaukee. She drew here from casts—and didn’t like it. A “crush” on a good-looking boy, a fellow student, helped.
After a time, Helga Haugan went to New York to study at the Art Students’ League. Again, no particular thrills. Classrooms didn’t agree with a girl with the mountains and fjords milling about in her “subconscious.”
It was not until she went to Provincetown and set up her easel on the fishermen’s piers that she found herself. Here, under tutelage of Hawthorne, and later at Gloucester, a student of Breckenridge, she learned the delights of brush and canvas. When Hawthorne came to Chicago as a visiting instructor, she joined his classes and found he had brought the small of the ocean to the lake front.
In the course of her development, she took her chief delight in portraiture and a portrait painter she has been to this day, except for a brief interruption when she took a notion to do fresco. A Frenchman, La Montagne Saint-Hubert, gave a course at the Art Institute of Chicago, teaching the authentic methods of Giotto. He was a slave driver—his students were on the job from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. But Helga Dean didn’t mind. However, the impulse to follow in Giotto’s footsteps was spasmodic, and with the departure of the instructor Mrs. Dean and her fellow students abandoned hods and wheelbarrows and returned to their easels.
Mrs. Dean is a whole lot of a mystic, reveling in the confusion of astrology with astronomy, in the contact of radio with the Milky Way, in the good and evil anatomical effects of cosmic rays. As a loyal Norwegian, she shuns Swedenborg but admits a guilty curiosity. These mystical tendencies affect her painting of portraits. She is attracted or repelled by the mentalities that confront her almost to the point, sometimes, of the morbid.
You’ll sense all this in “Poor Little Feet.”