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Charles Ephraim Burchfield (aka Charles E. Burchfield)

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Charles Ephraim Burchfield
(Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, 1893 – 1967, West Seneca, New York)

Charles Burchfield was born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio in 1893. His father died three years later, and Burchfield’s mother moved the family back to her hometown of Salem. The family lived in a small house on the edge of town. Burchfield did well in school, but had no close friends. In order to help support his mother, Burchfield worked after school and on Saturdays at a local drugstore, and later at W. H. Mullins Co., which manufactured machine and automobile parts. Around the age of sixteen, the young artist began a lifelong habit of writing in journals, which by the end of his life totaled seventy-two volumes. They contain observations of nature that include meticulous notes of the change of weather, the seasons, and they share an “obsessive mensuration and notation of nature that characterized [Henry David] Thoreau’s writings.”(1) Between 1912 and 1917, the public and critics alike took a revitalized interest in Thoreau, and as a young man, Burchfield was not immune to the influence. Walden made a particular impression on the artist, and he turned to it throughout his life for inspiration.

After graduating from high school, Burchfield began studying design at the Cleveland School of Art. Burchfield never stayed away from home very long, and he made a habit of returning to Salem every summer to paint and work. His works from this period, such as "Trees and Roof" (1915, Private Collection) and "Yellow Afterglow" (1916, Burchfield-Penney Art Center) were painted from the upstairs studio/bedroom and from the vantage of the front and back of doorways of the house. Burchfield continued the practice later in his career when he moved to Gardenville, New York, painting views accessible from his studio, his kitchen, or his living room. As an artist, he best observed and interpreted that which he knew and felt most intimately. He later said that he “had to live in a place for sometime before I can give genuine expression of my reaction to a place.” Burchfield later told a newspaper interviewers, “I’ve painted almost everything you could see from my studio windows…One of my ambitions is to collect all of the paintings again. Then I would have an exhibit called ‘From my Backyard.’”(2) Burchfield often walked the streets and surrounding neighborhoods of his home, later explaining that he could hear music in the sounds of nature.

Traditionally, art historians have stated that there was limited outside influence during Burchfield’s four-year period (1912-1916) at the Cleveland School of Arts, due to the school’s traditional, academic training in the fine arts. Unfortunately, this dismissal fails to account for the individual teachers and experiences Burchfield had outside the classroom. Recent scholarship tells a very different story.

In 1912, Cleveland was a diverse and rapidly expanding city.(3) Its booming economy attracted a large number of immigrants with diverse religions, intellectual, and cultural traditions. The city enjoyed an active cultural life-the Cleveland School of Art organized loan exhibitions of American, European, and Asian art for its large art gallery. Students, faculty, and alumni routinely exhibited there. Other venues existed for exhibiting: the William Taylor Gallery, the Gage Gallery, the Rorheimer-Brooks Studios, and the Kokoon Club among others.(4)

At the time Burchfield attended, oil painting was taught by Frederick Gottwald, who believed that modern art—which included everything from Post-Impressionism to Cubism—was “either a deliberate fraud or debased lunacy.”(5) His opinions were shared by May Ames, who taught art history, and Grace Kelly, who taught watercolor.(6) Not surprisingly, although Burchfield took classes with all three professors, he rarely mentions them when discussing his experiences in Cleveland. The artist naturally gravitated towards the more liberal, progressive professors in the departments of illustration and design. This included William Brigham, who taught design theory; Henry Keller, instructor of decorative illustration; Frank Wilcox, instructor of applied design; and William Eastman who succeeded Brigham as professor of design theory in the fall of 1913.

The critical moment for Burchfield was in his freshman year when he discovered his talent for design. He noted in his journals that the drawing classes were more difficult than he anticipated, and that “design was my special field. It was the one thing in which I excelled and which was the solace for some of my disappointments in other classes…Brigham, the design teacher, said I was the genius of the class, Keller also said my feeling for design amounted ‘almost to genius’.”(7) This is evident throughout the artist’s oeuvre, as his works rely heavily on composition and design, with little reference to drawing of human figures.

Burchfield’s third year was perhaps his most crucial, as he expanded his circle of acquaintances outside of school and became directly involved with the modernist movement in Cleveland. In the fall of 1914, Burchfield attended an exhibition of the Kokoon Club. Founded in 1911, the club consisted of a group of Cleveland artists working outside the city’s “established” art institutions and organizations. Members differed on their views of the club’s purpose, some followed Robert Henri and the Ashcan school’s realism, while other were devoted to the European avant-garde, such as Cezanne and Matisse. Burchfield’s closest friends and professors were active in the club, including Keller, Eastman, and Wilcox. In March 1915, Burchfield noted in his journal that Keller had volunteered to show him the Post-Impressionist method of using the blue outline, perhaps inspired by Henri Matisse’s "The Blue Nude" (1907, Baltimore Museum of Art), which was one of the most celebrated works at the 1913 Armory Show. Burchfield made an early fauvist attempt in "Landscape with Faun" (c.1915, Kennedy Galleries), in which he depicted a green faun in heavy outline dancing and playing an instrument in a forest. Other works from his student period, such as "Trees, and Fields, Noon Sunlight" (1915, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute) and "Decorative Landscape, Hot Morning Sunlight" (1916, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute) are heavily colored with outlined forms. His early education in Cleveland coupled with his observations of nature from his summer painting trips to Salem culminated into what scholars consider his “first” stylistic period.

After graduating from the Cleveland School of Art, Burchfield moved to New York City, having won a scholarship at the National Academy of Design. The artist was hesitant about attending, as neither travel nor New York excited him. Nevertheless, he went with great hesitation and after attending one life drawing class, decided it was not for him and did not return to the school. He remained in New York for a short period afterward, working odd jobs. Despite his ambivalence about New York, his time there proved to be an important turning point in his career.

When Burchfield moved to New York in early fall of 1916, he took with him a few watercolors from Salem. Someone (Burchfield later could not remember who) recommended that he show the works to the dealer Montross. Montross introduced him to Walter Pach, an influential art critic. Pach offered to buy the portfolio, believing he could sell the works for about $25.00 each. Burchfield could not bear to part with them, and Pach suggested he take the works to the Sunwise Turn Bookshop on 2 East 31st Street. It was there that Burchfield met Mary Clarke and Madge Jenison who ran the shop. For the next six years, Clarke essentially became Burchfield’s dealer and press agent, showing the works to “important” people, encouraging Burchfield to keep working, and introducing him to new books and ideas. Burchfield later said, “not a day went by that I did not go into her shop and sit and try to forget my homesickness.”(8) The Sunwise Turn Bookshop proved to be a clearinghouse for exchanging art ideas and discussing philosophies. Among other artists who regularly showed and visited the shop were Arthur B. Davies, Maurice and Charles Prendergast, Walt Kuhn, and Jerome Myers.(9) Even Peggy Guggenheim worked there for time. She later remembered, “Though I was only a clerk, I swept the bookshop daily, highly perfumed, and wearing little pearls and a magnificent taupe coat…My rich aunts also came and literally bought books by the yard to fill their bookcases.”(10)

Burchfield’s first explosion of artistic creativity began in 1917, after he returned to Salem from New York. He produced some five hundred watercolors between 1916 and 1918, despite having a full time job. These works were nearly one quarter of his life’s production. To create them, the artist rushed home at lunchtime to begin a sketch; rushed back to work; and finished the painting in the evening, after a full day at the office. His dedication to his art was immeasurable.

Perhaps one of the key influences of this period was Arthur Wesley Dow, who taught decorative printmaking in Cleveland. According to art historian Henry Adams, Dow’s paintings and prints, while pleasing, are unmemorable and bland. It was in Dow’s ideas, not his art that his significance lays. Dow’s greatest achievement was the 1899 publication of his book, "Composition," which laid out the principles of decorative design with great clarity. The book helped to lay the foundation for modern painting in America, and became a staple in art education. Dow considered design the fundamental basis of painting. In essence, he declared, painting is not representation, but a rhythmic harmony of colored spaces. He made it clear that the construction of the composition was not a technical trick, but a spiritual quest for the fundamental essence of things—even a pathway toward a higher state of being. Dow taught a number of well-known painters and photographers, including Max Weber, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Burchfield was very receptive to Dow’s teachings, and the results can be seen in his works of this first period. In his early representations of Salem, Burchfield chose actual locales that could be recognized by the viewer. In his works such as "Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night" (1917, Cleveland Museum of Art), Burchfield transforms an actual place into a spiritual and emotional experience for the viewer. In this depiction of the spire of the First Baptist Church in Salem, Burchfield uses a predominantly muted palette of gray, black and white. He uses rhythmic lines, echoed in the sky and ground to create the buildings. The buildings appear to have faces and even the spire takes on a morphic, bird-like appearance. The work is haunting and morose. However, upon close observation, in the lower left window of one of the houses, a Christmas tree peaks through the window, decorated with green and red bulbs and a white snowflake. It is glowing with what appears to be a golden star. In the upper right window of the same house is burning candle. It is a curious combination for such a dark work.

The rhythmic elements as seen in "Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night," reappear throughout Burchfield’s oeuvre. His art is based on forms that duplicate each other—trees in rows, leaves in decorative patterns (like those in his early design works and later in his wall paper designs) and buildings in syncopated, rhythmic lines. Burchfield often repeated motifs, and also liked to find affinities of form between different elements, such as the circularity of the moon and sunflowers, or the similar arching of a branch or a bird’s wing. In decorative design, the eye jumps from one element to another, as opposed to true representational painting where the artist tends to organize the design in order to focus on a central point of interest. Burchfield’s early style of composition was a subtle combination of the two, where fluid design elements lead the eye back to a central focus.

While 1917 was Burchfield’s most productive year, it also saw the end of his youthful innocence. He had a brief stint in the Army, and left as a Sargent in January of 1919. This was followed by a period of adjustment during which the artist visited many of his old haunts searching for appropriate subjects in small rural towns and neighboring woods. He destroyed some paintings, considering them decadent or unsalable, and settled for the most part on a more temperate vision of his environment. During this time, Burchfield experimented with printmaking and etching, and would later make a series of prints in collaboration with artist J. J. Lankes illustrating small town American and Biblical texts.(11)

The 1920s proved to be a transitional time for the artist. Burchfield had his first one man show at Kevorkian Galleries in New York, for which he received critical acclaim. Sales from the show were so successful that he took a three-month leave from his day job at W. H. Mullins Company to paint full time, encouraged by his new success. Burchfield’s art also began to change. He abandoned his views of nature that characterized his early works of 1915-1919. He instead began to focus on scenes of small town America, subject matter from Salem and its environs. The 1920s ushered in his “Regionalist” period and earned him a national reputation.

When Burchfield returned to work in the spring of 1921, he lost his job due to the post-war recession. With the reputation and contacts he had established, he could have moved to New York and supported himself as a painter. He chose instead to work for wallpaper manufacturers M. H. Birge & Sons Company in Buffalo, New York.(12) That summer he met and fell in love with Bertha Kenreich, who he married in 1922. The couple had five children in six years, placing increasing demands upon the artist. In 1925, the Burchfields moved from Buffalo to Gardenville, New York. The Museum’s "The Open Road" of 1931 is a depiction of a vista in this area outside of Buffalo. Although he continued painting during this time, it was not until 1929 that he was confident enough to leave the wallpaper business and paint full time. The impetus in this decision was a meeting with Frank Rehn, who arranged to become his exclusive art dealer. From the beginning, Rehn managed to support the artist and sell his work steadily, despite the stock market crash of the Great Depression.

Burchfield’s work of the 1920s, as mentioned, took on a different aspect than that of his Salem works. He began representing industrial locations around Buffalo, such as the steel mills and railroad depots. It was during this period that he painted the Museum’s "Scrapped Locomotives" (1921). Burchfield also began to focus on houses and the immediate landscape, also creating the Museum’s "Construction" (1923). His biggest influence of this period was his friend and colleague, Edward Hopper.(13)

Partly drawn together through efforts of Frank Rehn (who was Hopper’s dealer as well), Hopper and Burchfield evolved a new language of American expression.(14) Singled out by critics, Hopper and Burchfield were distinct from modernists who were creating abstraction derived from European art and were also different from American realists (like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood), who portrayed picturesque and pleasant scenes of American life. The two men drew from each other, and Hopper’s biggest influence on Burchfield can be seen in Burchfield’s work of the 1930s. Burchfield adapted Hopper’s stark, geometric qualities and precision of line in his depictions of houses and buildings. For example, works like "Sulphurous Evening" (1922-29) and "Abandoned Farmhouse" (1932, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery), recall Hopper’s restraint and monumental form as seen in "House by the Railroad" (1925, Whitney Museum).

One of Burchfield’s industrial masterpieces of the period is "Black Iron" (1935, Private Collection). In "Black Iron," Burchfield depicts a double drawbridge over the Buffalo River in blacks and grays, and is a synthesis of his favorite shapes and motifs. For example, the design depends on a hidden V, which is inverted, created by the great counterweights. This V shape is complemented by the V shape of the black pool of water in the lower right side of the painting. In using these forms, Burchfield creates tension, as the V shape rises into the air, producing a downward pull into the murky water. The V shape and the notion of the downward pull recurred frequently in Burchfield’s work, most recognizable in his later depictions of nature, particularly in birds and trees. Discussing Black Iron, Burchfield said “the bridge and everything suggested black iron to me…the water itself looked as though it might be liquid iron. It was black and oily and shiny.”(15)

Around 1943, Burchfield’s work reached another pivotal point. He began to rework his watercolors from 1913 to 1922 and was thinking about new ways to approach nature and the landscape around Salem. Nature was by far the most important influence on Burchfield as he began to explore the seasons and their affects. He also returned to Thoreau, who was his second biggest influence on his season paintings. Burchfield’s season paintings were often “autobiographical memory pieces of scenes reflected from decades of rural Ohio life he remembered while living in New York.”(16) He often painted outside during all hours to capture his expressions of nature, and if a work were not finished, would sometimes leave it until the next year when the season returned. These works spanned from approximately 1943 to the end of his life in 1967 and did not always represent the formulaic conception of the four seasons. Burchfield was most interested in the transition of seasons, capturing seven phases: winter giving way to spring; spring; summer; autumn; autumn giving way to winter; the depths of winter; and winter waning yet retaining its grip.(17)

According to Henry Adams, there were several reasons for Burchfield’s shift in artistic direction from his industrial and regionalist depictions. First, in the fearful atmosphere that accompanied World War II, it was difficult to paint industrial subjects since in such circumstances, an artist could be considered a spy or saboteur. Through a change of outward circumstances, Burchfield was pushed back to the natural landscape and the environs of his studio, where he could paint undisturbed. Second, his style of the 1930s was beginning to grow stale; and his struggle to keep his work in Hopperesque straight lines was bordering on literal representation. Third, at the urging of his wife, Burchfield joined the Lutheran church. This endowed his late works with an undercurrent of religious symbolism, and emotionally liberated him to explore his inner feelings with a freedom he had not felt since 1918.(18)

The 1930s and 1940s were also the period of Burchfield’s intense interest in the music of Canadian composer Jan Sibelius. In a journal entry from Thanksgiving of 1930, Burchfield mentions that he had just listened to a new recording of Sibelius’ Second Symphony. It is one of the earliest references to the composer and illustrates its influence upon Burchfield and his art. Burchfield said, “All the torture of barrenness and indecision that this autumn has assailed me are dissolved in this elemental music” and “Pictures and ideas pour upon me—my joy is almost too much to be borne.”(19) His work from this time on was dominated by a joint lyricism of music, motion, and religiosity.

"The Coming of Spring" (1917-43, Metropolitan Museum of Art) was the first painting that Burchfield reworked from his earlier period. The artist added sections of paper, expanding the watercolor to a larger size and reworked the composition.(20) The trick, according to Adams, was to create a monumental composition, with large scale and grand forms like those of his Regionalist works, and at the same time harmonize new proportions with the decorative style of his early work.

In contrast to his work of the 1930s, Burchfield’s later paintings sometime border on the bizarre, using visionary effects that create a sense of madness. For example, "Midsummer Caprice" (1945, Columbus Museum of Art) is a strange if not surreal depiction of a summer landscape. In the painting, a field of yellow and green grass is dotted with dead and living trees, wildflowers, and a butterfly. A focus in the work is two trees in the middle ground that are growing next to each other, and have a few green and yellow leaves. Interestingly, a haunting design of V shapes and curved bird shapes form a face between the trees. The sky is blue and yellow, made of up painterly, Van Gogh-like curves of sky and clouds. Burchfield combined all the seasons in "The Four Seasons" (1949-60, Krannert Museum of Art). The outer border of the work is dominated by snow covered trees and ground. As the view progresses towards the center of the painting, the landscape gives way to the rebirth of spring, the heat of summer, and the dying foliage of autumn. The sun shines brilliantly through winter clouds in the composition and a formation of birds mark the top center of the composition. Burchfield uses the V and arch shapes once again in the trees and bird formation to create the composition. The Museum’s "Artic Owl and Winter Moon" (1960) is from this later period.

Close observation of nature remained the one constant in Burchfield’s oeuvre. As a child, he was fascinated with the nature writings of John Burroughs, and at one point wanted to be a nature writer. Thoreau’s influence was another constant throughout the artist’s work, and perhaps the one artist, although literary, that he felt most akin. Although Burchfield looked to European modernists for a short period of time like other American artists, Burchfield only needed his immediate surroundings and his love for nature to be inspired to create works of art. The artist died in 1967.

1) Charles C. Eldredge,”Wedded to Nature: The Art of Charles Burchfield,” in Life Cycles: The Charles E. Burchfield Collection (Buffalo, New York: Burchfield-Penney Art Center, 1996): 16.

2) Columbus Museum of Art, Museum Bulletin (Spring 1997): unpaginated.

3) William H. Robinson, in “Native Sons: Charles Burchfield and the Cleveland School of Art,” in The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Northwest (New York: Harry Abrams, 1997, 62-72), explains that the demands of the Civil War fueled the rapid expansion of industry in Cleveland, especially the manufacturing of iron and steel. In 1870, one of the city’s oil refiners, John D. Rockefeller, formed the Standard Oil Company, which within a decade came to control ninety percent of the country’s oil refining. By 1910, the city had developed into a major producer of paints, clothing, books, machine tools, and automobiles. Sixty-three millionaires were then living in Cleveland, where the main thoroughfare, Euclid Avenue, was known as “Millionaire’s Row.”

4) Robinson also lists the Potter Studios, Korner and Wood, the Guenther Galleries, the Rowfant Club, Hatch Studios, Lindner’s Little Gallery, the Pach Studios, Laukhuff’s Bookstore, the Play House, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

5) Robinson, 63.

6) In 1911, Kelly denounced the Impressionists as “freaks” interested only in fame, money, and “slapping paint in unique ways with the deliberate intention of attracting attention.” Ames expressed similar malcontent: “There is no real truth in the monstrosities and distortions perpetuated under the ‘isms’…In their frantic effort to obtain quick recognition for individuality, or sometimes with the idea uppermost in their minds to ‘get rich quick,’ artists have profaned and debased the pure character of art under the implication that it represented some school of the isms-whether the post-impressionists or the cubists.” See Robinson, 62.

7) Journals of Charles Burchfield, vol. 8, August 13, 1913, quoted in Robinson, 64.

8) From Burchfield’s autobiographical manuscript, “Life and Career,” prepared by Burchfield for John Baur in 1955. Quoted in M. Sue Kendall, “Serendipity at the Sunwise Turn: Mary Mowbray-Clarke and the Early Patronage of Charles Burchfield,” in The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Northwest. For more on this influential and pioneering book shop, see Kendall’s essay.

9) Davies, Maurice Prendergast, Kuhn and Myers are in the MMFA collections.

10) Guggenheim came to work at the shop because of her cousin, Harold Loeb, and had purchased part-ownership of the bookshop in 1919. Loed is perhaps most famous for co-founding along with poet Alfred Kreymborg, the expatriate magazine Broom in 1921. Loeb and Kreymborg had met during one of the Tuesday night poetry readings at the Sunwise Turn.

11) For a detailed essay on Burchfield’s printmaking, see Nancy Weekly, “American Minstrel: The Prints of Charles Burchfield,” in Life Cycles: The Charles E. Burchfield Collection (Buffalo: Buffalo-Penney Art Center, 1996): 238-252.

12) For a detailed essay on Burchfield’s wallpaper designs, see Robert M. Slammon, “Boundless Walls: The Decorative Art of Charles Burchfield,” in Life Cycles: The Charles E. Burchfield Collection.

13) The Museum owns three works by Hopper, Deck of the Trawler Widgeon (1926), Light at Two Lights (1927) and New York Office (1962).

14) See Adams, 117.

15) Edna M. Lindeman, ed. The Sites of A City: Charles Burchfield’s Buffalo (Buffalo: The Burchfield Center, 1976): unpaginated, quoted in Michael D. Hall, “Burchfield’s Regionalism: The Middle Border and the Great Divide,” in The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Northwest, 87.

16) Michael Kammen, :Charles Burchfield and the Procession of the Seasons,” in The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Northwest, 42.

17) Kammen, 45.

18) Adams, 120-21.

19) Quoted in Roald Nasgaard’s “Charles Burchfield and the Theme of the North,” in The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Northwest, 28.

20) For a detailed article on Burchfield’s working technique, see Patricia D. Hamm and Nancy Weekly, “Beyond Imagery: An Overview of Charles Burchfield’s Materials and Techniques,” Watercolor (Spring 1997): 117-128.

- Letha Clair Robertson, 4/23/04

Image credit: Charles E. Burchfield, photographic print, Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D. C., J0001324, Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, © PD-US-expired

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