Summary of Charles Burchfield
Burchfield was one of the most innovative and stylish American landscapists of the twentieth century. A man with a deep affinity with his natural surroundings, he used watercolor to depict scenes of the natural world and neighborhood buildings that he brought to life through an innate sense for shifting weather patterns, light, and sound. Although considered a "provincial outsider", Burchfield nevertheless achieved great national acclaim in his own lifetime, being the first to win a solo exhibition at New York's newly opened Museum of Modern Art, and, a year later, listed in a poll of the top ten American painters.
- Burchfield's early landscapes were imbued with expressionistic light that brought a uniquely mystical and experiential vision of nature. In his so-called "Golden Year", Burchfield focused on his immediate surroundings at Salem, Ohio, producing images of woodlands, pastures, and unassuming townsteads in an audacious, near-abstract, style that owed a debt to European and Asian art.
- Burchfield's mid-career is defined by a more realistic approach to his surroundings. His painting of scenes of non-descript factory towns saw him associated him with American Regionalism. Even though Burchfield went of lengths to distance himself from any associations with the movement, he produced several paintings from the period that effortlessly caught the desolate and ashen mood of the anonymous and silent world with which he was so familiar.
- Burchfield was considered a leader in the art of synesthesia, a perceptual phenomenon in which the artist visualizes their sensory perception. In Burchfield's case this related predominantly to music and the natural world. Burchfield stated, "It seems at times I should be a composer of sounds, not only of rhythms and colors [...] walking under the trees, I felt as if the color made sound". In many of his landscapes, Burchfield interprets sounds visually as swirling wind, and uses colors that seem to make his foliage sway in the elements.
- Burchfield graduated from art school as an illustrator, and he enjoyed a highly successful supplementary career as a wallpaper designer. Burchfield did not treat his arts and crafts designs as secondary to his painting. He believed rather that an artist should have more than one outlet for their creative energies and credited his wallpaper designs with influencing the shapes and patterns that emerged in many of his paintings. His commercial design work, which was often exhibited next to his paintings, saw him favourably compared with Art Nouveau movements and innovators such as William Morris and Aubrey Beardsley.
The Life of Charles Burchfield
American sculptor Robert Gober referred to Burchfield as the "hermit genius". He arrived at this description on the back of a quote from Burchfield himself: "I like to think of myself - as an artist - as being in a nondescript swamp, up to my knees in mire, painting the vital beauty I see there, in my own way, not caring a damn about tradition, or anyone's opinion".
Important Art by Charles Burchfield
Untitled (Clump of Purple Trees)
This painting of a group of trees in the Wade Park section of Cleveland that Burchfield frequently depicted during his years as an art student. It is an example of his early method for turning a sketch or drawing into a painting. Burchfield began this composition as a graphite drawing and then added watercolor in layers, reducing everything to the twelve main hues of the color wheel. Burchfield explained that the "sunlit earth would be orange; shadows on it, red-violet; sunlit grass, yellow; shadows, blue or blue-green and so on. They were executed in flat pattern with little or no evidence of a third dimension".
Burchfield's simplified palette and application of colorful bands and swatches of paint provide an illusion of natural light permeating throughout the landscape. Like notes from within a musical scale, the chromatic application of color creates an overarching harmonious balance and polyphonic feeling. In the way that Burchfield paints large fields of flat solid color spread across a flat picture plane, it embodies a process whereby color becomes the dominant subject of the painting. While clearly not abstract, this painting might be viewed as an early precursor to the Color Field painting style that emerged in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s.
Watercolor over graphite on paper
Factories (Red Buildings)
The early watercolor painting, one of several on this theme, depicts familiar settings from Burchfield's daily life in Salem, Ohio. Most prominently featured are the red brick factory buildings within downtown Salem. Burchfield worked at one of the city's many factories, W. H. Mullins Company, which fabricated sheet metal products. Peeking out from behind the factory buildings is the Salem High School bell tower. Burchfield notes that the painting was made to show the vantage point of an "alley near Lundy Street looking toward Main". We know that it is a wintertime scene because there is snow on the ground and on the roofs of the two smallest buildings in the foreground. The blue skies and golden light reflected onto the brick of the buildings is indicative of Burchfield's feel for the sensations of the natural world.
It is evident that nearly every aspect of Salem's environment, both natural and synthetic, inspired Burchfield's creative impulses. In a journal entry dated December 22, 1919, he wrote: "There is the old thrill of the outdoors - Winter dawn is like something calm and self-contained - down on the hill above the factories - The smoke goes up from a hundred chimneys into the quiet air; straight up then bends suddenly, eastwards - It forms a brown veil at this height and hangs motionless over the town; from the factories & railroads comes an exciting roar of machinery; that complements the steady up-pouring of smoke - There is romance at every angle". In this example, the very faint and fleeting lines of a smoke cloud can be seen emitting from the narrow gray smokestack on the right, but there is really very little evidence of human activity. The scene evokes the "calm and self-contained" aura that Burchfield describes in his journal.
Some critics belief that Burchfield's stated "romance" with his hometown surroundings may have been over stated, or even ironic. For instance, The New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, wrote, "To the end of his life, Burchfield repeatedly denounced a rave review from 1920 by the era's best critic, Henry McBride, who attributed the power of the young man's art to a 'detestation' of the provincial ugliness of 'the loathsome town of Salem, Ohio.' This was an honest cosmopolitan mistake, at a time when artists and writers routinely fled the hinterlands for the liberties of Greenwich Village. In fact, the aura of tumultuous disturbance that McBride accurately noticed - rural and town scenes subject to sinister distortions, as if animate with dread - sprang from the artist, not from his subjects".
Watercolor on paper
Modernistic pattern, design number 3960
In 1921 Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York, where he took up the post of wallpaper designer at M.H. Birge and Sons. The job provided financial security for the Burchfield's who had five children (four daughters and a son) between 1923-29. He would soon become the manufacturer's most popular designer and took up the position of Head of Design in 1927. Indeed, Burchfield's designs proved so popular the company took to printing his name on the paper's selvage. His works included color variations on traditional designs, or, with titles like Field Corn with Morning Glories (1927), Burchfield returned to his deeply personal relationship with the scenic Salem countryside. He produced a total of 19 original designs for the company in this vein.
Smithsonian's Design Historian and curator, Greg Herringshaw, says of Modernistic: "This design is probably the least representative of Burchfield's style of painting, but it became one of his most popular wallpaper designs. It almost borders on Dada as the design contains a number of disparate elements that don't seem to mean anything or have any relationship with other elements. There are recognizable signs of plant life mixed together with, or growing out of, unusual symbolic motifs. These are all printed over a mottled tan background which does pull all the parts together for a cohesive whole. All of the motifs are very stylized and minimal in design which, along with the minimal use of color, prevents the design from being overwhelming or busy. The overall design is more freeform and random in feeling than his other wallpapers". Despite his success at M.H. Birge and Sons, Burchfield yearned to have more time for his painting (his work schedule meant he could only paint on weekends or evenings) and he resigned his post in 1929 after signing with the Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries in New York.
Wallpaper: machine printed on embossed paper - Produced by M.H. Birge & Sons Co. (Buffalo, New York, USA)
This realistic painting depicts a section of the city of Buffalo at night after a rainfall. It was painted during Burchfield's second stylistic phase. This phase, partially influenced by his desire to sell paintings in an art market that favored realism, prompted Burchfield's categorization within American Regionalist group. The San Diego Museum of art bought the painting for $1,500, which was a large sum for a sale of an artwork in 1939. Rainy Night shows Burchfield's mastery of watercolor paint and his ability to portray a lifelike scene using the medium's translucent qualities to represent the slick wet streets and the glow from the downtown lights. In addition to the ambient light from residential quarters, cafes, and streetlamps, light from the moon illuminates the background and accentuates the symmetrical contours of the buildings.
The location of this painting is the corner of Broadway and Ellicott Street in the heart of downtown Buffalo. Apart from the four years he had spent in Cleveland during his college years, Burchfield never lived in a large city until he moved to Buffalo, which had a population of approximately half a million, when he arrived in 1922. Regarding the painting's subject matter, Burchfield reflected: "The aim here was not to caricature but to give a mood and sense of the weather and time of day. I made a sketch one evening in late January 1929 and finished it in 1930. I stood in the rain and caught a cold ... I've exaggerated the foreground, as if I were looking down from a higher point. A man in New York once said 'Your pictures are always so dreary, cold and rainy. Why don't you paint a girl getting into a taxi.' So I did..."
From around 1930, Burchfield was generally discussed on par with Edward Hopper, as one of the best American watercolorists of his day. Indeed, Historian Milton W. Brown (writing in 1947) sees Burchfield and Hopper (who were friends and both represented by Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries in New York) as the heirs to the realist tradition in twentieth century American art following the demise of the Ashcan School. He writes, "Edward Hopper had direct roots with the 'Ashcan' tradition. But, although he had exhibited with the leading [Robert] Henri pupils in 1908 when he sold his first picture, he was almost completely ignored for fifteen years while he worked as an illustrator, until 1923 when he managed to sell his second picture at a watercolor exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. From then on he has been recognized as one of America's leading painters. At about the same time, Charles Burchfield was heralded in England as an original and authentic American artist, which in turn led to his sudden discovery in this country [America]".
Watercolor over graphite on paper
The Coming of Spring
Here Burchfield's expressive forest scene presents an overarching vision of an ecosystem in the midst of seasonal transformation. He said, "The coming of Spring will be a true Spring at last, for with it will come the new life. Winter takes on a new meaning, for all the long months the new life will be growing and with the fulfillment of spring, be born". The Coming of Spring tells the tale then of two seasons in a state of flux. The semi-icy ravine and the dark forest, with patches of melting icicles, contain elements of the winter's last hurrah, while the foreground is indicative of springtime. Burchfield acknowledges the importance and frequency of this subject matter throughout his oeuvre. He wrote in a journal entry dated March 29, 1943, that "I feel that my best, most original work is in the field of nature, the change of seasons, and weather".
The Coming of Spring is indicative of Burchfield's shift into a third stylistic shift, which revisited the imaginary and whimsical element of his early works, but on a bolder, more nuanced, and larger scale. This painting is in fact a revision of a 1917 watercolor painting depicting a ravine in Salem, Ohio. The Met Museum writes, "This first 'reconstruction' [of his style], begun in April 1943, marked a turning point for Burchfield, as he began to reclaim the inventive fantasy and spontaneity that had enlivened his earliest watercolors.".
Watercolor on paper - Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gateway to September
Art historian Matthew Baigell observed that, "Together with artists as diverse as Morris Graves , Mark Tobey and Mark Rothko, Burchfield may be considered one if the century's leading mystical painters". Indeed, this painting looks more like an environment from a J.R.R. Tolkien "middle-earth" novel than an actual scene captured from nature. Like earlier pieces, such as The Coming of Spring(1943), Burchfield juxtaposes two distinct seasons within one composition in order to portray nature's cyclical metamorphosis. The concept of illustrating the changing of seasons is common within Japanese and Chinese scroll paintings, which Burchfield studied during his time at the Cleveland School of Art.
There are several fantastical elements in this painting, specifically how flora appear to have anthropomorphic features. This is most evident from the large tree in the foreground, which looks as if it is making a facial expression. Burchfield has actually arranged three moths to form the tree's eyes and brows, while a tree hollow becomes a wide-open mouth. In the middle of the composition, he has painted a portal into an entirely different landscape. In all Burchfield's seasonal paintings, time is expressively visualized and we can practically feel the elemental and sensory qualities associated with the incremental moments that are portrayed. In this case, we are in late August, commonly known as "the dog days" of summer because of the high temperature and humidity levels. Hence, the personified tree looks as if it's sweating profusely. The scene in the portal is more serene because it takes us into September, when the temperature cools down and the air becomes more arid.
Watercolor on paper - Hunter Museum of American Art
Song of the Telegraph
Songs of the Telegraph is the culmination of several studies dating back to 1917. The title takes its name from one of the main elements and focal points in the painting, a series of wooden telegraph wires. Burchfield wrote that "There are few sounds that are as wild and elemental as the 'music' of the telegraph wires that stir the blood as much, and fill the listener, boy or man, with such vague but intense yearning for he knows not what".
In order to emulate auditory qualities he experienced in nature, Burchfield developed a set of cryptograms that corresponded with specific natural noises, which he would incorporate into his sketches for paintings. Sounds such as the wind, rain, humming of birds, and buzzing of insects, were depicted using a unique system of patterns. For instance, the electrical hum and buzzing of the telegraph wires are visualized like plucked strings on a harp. Other objects in the painting are also activated through Burchfield's unique representation of sounds. Burchfield scholar Nancy Weekly describes a natural symphony of "echoing crow caws, wind-whipped clouds, and other vibrations and animated landscape elements".
Burchfield said of the painting, "It symbolized for me the old yearning of boyhood for the Northlands, beyond the Covered Bridge, evoked by the elemental calls of crows. The part most likely to give trouble will be the telegraph line itself; it is easy to invent a multitude of symbols to represent the 'humming' of a telegraph pole, but just because it is easy - therein lies the danger of overdoing it. Another series of motifs that gave me pleasure were white wind motifs, introduced in the sky, + above the woods, and running like white fire over the dead bleached out grass in the foreground, licking at the ancient grey rail fence running parallel to the road".
Watercolor on paper
This painting is another poetic example of how Burchfield narrates the changing of seasons within a single work of art. Burchfield suggests this period in time by dividing the composition to show the various states of a snow-covered forest as winter gives way to spring. The right-hand side is dark, full of evergreens and still mostly blanketed in snow. The left-hand side contains evidence of the fleeting winter days.
Like Gateway to September (1945-56), Burchfield includes a portal-like escape into a new season. This time, it appears as if the three crescent-shaped portals in the middle of the composition are being opened as a result of a strong wind and rainstorm. In 1955, Burchfield wrote of the painting: "I conceived the notion of encompassing two wholly dissimilar themes in one picture - to reduce each of them to abstract motifs (albeit based on natural forms and experiences) and show them interlocking or striving for the mastery. It was an idea not easy to arrive at, and there was a period of five or six years between the first pencil note and the finished picture which you now own".
The setting for this seasonal overlap is a wooded area in Gowanda, New York, off Zoar Valley Road, which Burchfield called the "Big Woods". Burchfield described his process of painting en plein air: "Hardly had I set up my easel when a thunderstorm came up. I decided nothing was going to stop my painting, and hurriedly got my huge beach umbrella, and my rain‑coat. I protected my legs with a portfolio (the wind holding it in place). And so I painted with my nose almost on the paper with thunder crashing, boughs breaking and rain falling in torrents - A glorious few hours when I seemed to become part of the elements. When I was done at late afternoon, the picture was complete - It seemed as if it has materialized under its own power - ".
Watercolor on paper mounted on board
In this painting, produced near the end of his life, Burchfield's lyrical representation of natural phenomenon amounts to a spiritual homage to the natural world. The scene depicts the changing of the seasons and the infusion of new life and transformation that is spurred on by the ecological cycle. He utilizes an atmospheric perspective that is somewhat reminiscent of Chinese and Japanese landscape painting, especially the work of Katsushika Hokusai. In the background a cloudy sky is giving way to a band of sunlight, which spreads over a range of small mountains. These elements are set against a body of water and marshland that occupies the middle ground. In the foreground there are two layers of objects that form the basis of the painting's subject matter. The first layer consists of a field of yellow and purple flowers. The next layer is a closeup of branches with buds protruding from them. This is where we see Burchfield's "romantic fantasy" comes into its own.
The buds are the poetic symbol for the life cycles of flora and fauna. We know that these buds will produce flowers, but there is also something unexpected within the largest bud on the center-right side of the composition. Here, Burchfield utilizes negative space to portray the inside of the bud where a baby bird can be seen. Clearly, this is not a literal scenario, but rather a metaphorical culmination of the transformations that occur during the changing of seasons. Surrounding the buds is a band of golden-yellow light, which alludes to the nimbus, a popular symbol in religious art that surrounds the head of a holy figure in order to represent their spiritual character. Burchfield's suggestion of a halo surrounding the bud indicates his transcendental perspective of nature.
Watercolor on paper
Biography of Charles Burchfield
Childhood and Adolescence
Burchfield was born in Ashtabula, Ohio, a small city located on the mouth of Lake Erie. His mother Alice Burchfield (née Murphy) was a teacher; his father, William Charles Burchfield, a merchant tailor. He was the second youngest of six siblings. His father died when he was five years old and his mother moved the family to Salem, Ohio in September of 1898. Burchfield was a committed student and graduated from Salem High School as the valedictorian of his class. He was very passionate about art and his academic accomplishments earned him a scholarship of $120, which he used to help fund art school.
Early Training and Work
New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl writes that, "As an adolescent, Burchfield was on fire for art, and enrolled in the Cleveland School of Art [in 1912] where he had good luck in sophisticated teachers". Having graduated in 1916, his initial aim was to major in commercial art and commence a career as an illustrator. Burchfield studied under Henry Keller, a prominent painter from the Cleveland School who championed the avant-garde and likely exposed his star pupil to examples of European and American modernism. Burchfield also developed an interest in Japanese landscape painting, especially the work of Katsushika Hokusai who Burchfield would later cite as one of his favorite artists. After Cleveland, Burchfield won a scholarship to study at the National Academy of Design in New York City. However, he dropped out after just a day.
Schjeldahl states that "[Burchfield] spent six weeks in the city, during which time he met the women who ran the Sunwise Turn Bookshop, an outpost of modern-mindedness. Impressed by Burchfield's work, they showed it for several years". Although he considered this, his first proper public exhibition, to be an early career milestone, it was on his return to the family home in 1917 that Burchfield recognized his true calling as an artist. Burchfield's "golden year", as he later called it, came with the realization that familiar settings and natural surroundings of Salem brough him a refreshed perspective of how he would develop as an artist. Burchfield later said of the period, "Surrounded by the familiar scenes of my boyhood, there gradually evolved the idea of recreating impressions of that period, the appearance of houses, the feelings of woods and fields, memories of seasonal impressions, etc.".
Burchfield's early watercolors captured the mood of his surroundings through a translucent, impressionistic color palette, that enabled him to synthesize natural patterns and shapes in a lyrical manner. His aesthetics blended the tenets of European modernism and the poetic and sublime qualities of Japanese and Chinese landscape painting. Burchfield painted scenes from the forests, meadows, and rural countryside that were in close proximity to the family home.
Burchfield took a break from his fine art practice when he enlisted in the US Army, serving for six months between 1918 and 1919. His background in art saw Burchfield assigned to teaching camouflage painting (in the army's camouflage corps). The role allowed him to freedom to roam around Camp Jackson, South Carolina (where he was stationed) and his landscape paintings from his short army spell including abandoned buildings and ruins close to the camp. In these paintings Burchfield introduced elements of symbolism that reflected the somber mood of the war years. Author Gerry Souter writes that Burchfield's "symbolism intruded into the most innocent of natural scenes, transforming flowers into demon masks and coal mine openings into yawning pits".
Having lost his position as an architectural clerk at the W. H. Mullins Company, Burchfield took on laborer's work at a nearby farm where he met Bertha Kenreich. The couple, who would raise a total of five children, were married in 1922, setting up home in Buffalo, New York, where Burchfield had taken up employment a year earlier as a designer for M.H. Birge & Sons Company, a prominent wallpaper business. Burchfield rose through the ranks of the company, becoming head of design by 1927 (before leaving the company in 1929). Burchfield said of this period, "An artist I believe should have more than one outlet for his creative energies and wall-paper designing has provided one for me [...] There are ideas that come to me that can be interpreted only in terms of patterns, and I derive much pleasure in working them out".
Art critic James Panero writes, "Burchfield's commercial work, taking a cue from Art Nouveau and William Morris, was [...] some of his most advanced production, and carried him through a fallow period". The "fallow period" to which Panero refers, was in fact the second phase of Burchfield's painting style; a style that was markedly more realistic than his first (Salem) phase. Featuring desolate provincial scenes of industrial sites, farmland, streets, and other local environments, the "second phase" pieces saw Burchfield's name linked with American Scene Painting, for which, the Oxford Directory of Modern and Contemporary Art gives us the following overview: "[American Scene Painting] applied to the work of various painters who in the 1920s and 1930s depicted aspects of American life and landscape in a naturalistic, descriptive style. The term does not signify an organized movement, but rather an aspect of a general tendency for American artists to move away from abstraction and the avant-garde in the period between the two world wars. Part of this tendency was a patriotic repudiation of European, specifically French, influence. Burchfield and [Edward] Hopper are among the best known exponents of American Scene Painting, and the Regionalists, who were more self-consciously nationalistic, are also embraced by the term".
Given that their realist works touched on the themes of solitude and alienation, both Burchfield's and Hopper's names have been linked with American Regionalism (a movement defined by subject matter over style). Burchfield rebuked all suggestions that he was part of the movement, but his paintings of this period caught the eye of Edward Hopper, who was moved to write an essay on Burchfield for the July 1928 issue of Arts Magazine. Hopper wrote, "The work of Charles Burchfield is most decidedly founded, not on art, but on life, and the life that he knows and loves best". In 1929 Burchfield joined the Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries in New York, (Rehn also acted for Hopper) which would represent him for the rest of his life.
In the spring of 1930, Burchfield gained widespread national recognition (on the back of his earlier watercolors) when he had a solo exhibition at the recently established Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. In what would be something of an historic landmark in American modernism, "Charles Burchfield: Early Watercolors 1916 to 1918", was the first single-artist exhibition held at the museum. Panero writes, "Alfred Barr [first director of MoMA] identified a young artist in the first flush of modernist experimentation. He may have been working in a provincial town in a provincial country, but Burchfield incorporated influences ranging from Hokusai and Hiroshige - to whom he was exposed in art school - through Yeats, Rabindranath Tagore, the Ballets Russes, and Aubrey Beardsley". Burchfield, who was disdainful of the commercial aspects of New York art scene, did not attend the launch party, preferring to stay home in Buffalo. His status was nevertheless confirmed in December 1936 when Life magazine carried a feature, "Burchfield's America", which placed him in the top ten of greatest living American painters.
Later Years and Death
In a self-conscious attempt to distance himself from associations with the American Regionalist movement, Burchfield spent a good deal of his time looking to the natural world and music for inspiration. Burchfield was especially moved by Finish composer Jean Sibelius's, "Symphony no. 2", writing in a journal entry on November 29, 1930, that: "I have just received the Second Symphony of Sibelius ― Its power & beauty overwhelms me ― what a magnificent genius is Sibelius ― All the torture of barrenness and indecision that this autumn assailed me are dissolved in this elemental music ― pictures and ideas pour in upon me ― my joy is almost too great to be borne". It is often suggested that Burchfield was synesthetic, that is, a person who can utilize one of their senses to experience a secondary sensory quality (i.e. hearing a note and visualizing a color for that particular note). Nancy Weekly, perhaps the preeminent authority on Burchfield's life and art, explains that Burchfield's journal entries "suggest he saw sounds and smells, and his paintings depict the sounds and smells of the natural world [and] depicted emotions as shapes, which he called conventions for abstract thoughts".
Around 1943, Burchfield's style shifted once again. His paintings from this era reveal a bold, expressive, palette which he matched with a marked symbolic content. New York's D C Moore Gallery says of his painting of this period, "He was initially inspired to develop what he called 'reconstructions' or 'two-period pictures,' composites of smaller, early works, mainly from 1917 and 1918, which he enlarged with strips of paper to create grander, more complex compositions. Much of his later work reveals two complementary sides of his artistic personality - from exuberant views of sunlit fields and atmospheric skies to more introspective meditations on the profound depths of nature".
In this later period, Burchfield developed a visual pattern that includes intricate linework, like swirls and waves, to express the sonic vibrations and other tones he heard in nature. Trees can be seen askew or bent in a manner that signifies a gust of wind; the wings of dragonflies and birds are blurred and blended to express inflight motion; gushes of water pound the rocky talus at the foot of a waterfall, then trickle steadily along the stream. These elements are symbolized through directional brushwork, which provides a visible contrast between bold and subtle lines, shapes, and forms that communicate movement, sound, and associated sensory characteristics.
Often described as "hallucinatory", these paintings teeter between a portrayal of nature based on a combination of reality, fantastic imagination, and subconscious gestures. In the exhibition catalogue for the 1965 exhibition, Charles Burchfield: His Golden Year, at the University of Arizona, he recalled: "1915 was the year that ideas came to me which were to haunt me the rest of my life; ideas and visions of paintings that were far beyond my ability or knowledge to carry out and still are, after fifty years, an unfulfilled dream". During his lifetime, Burchfield's watercolor paintings continued to receive critical notice, including a 1956 solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum. The exhibition also travelled across the United States, extending Burchfield's living legacy and providing him and his family with financial stability. In 1964, Burchfield stared, "How slowly the 'secrets' of my art come to me. When I said this to Bertha, she said 'Aren't you thankful that at 71 new secrets are being revealed to you?' And I certainly am'". He continued to make art until his death from a heart attack on January 10, 1967, in West Seneca, New York.
The Legacy of Charles Burchfield
Burchfield is today accepted as one of the most important American watercolorists and landscape painters. Sotheby's auction house summarized his artistic achievements thus: "Burchfield was a major painter of the 20th century who developed a unique style that evades categorization into a particular artistic movement. He never abandoned recognizable imagery, consistently turning to landscapes of nature and small towns; however, his distinct handling of paint provided an abstraction of natural objects into languid, expressive forms. His ecstatic vision of nature is at once haunting yet celebratory, tranquil yet vibrant, in a style that seemingly synthesizes art history from disparate periods including the work of Caspar David Friedrich, El Greco and Thomas Hart Benton".
On a day-to-day level, his legacy is protected by The Burchfield Homestead in Salem, Ohio, which is listed on America's National Register of Historic Places. What art historian Henry Adams calls "a building of extraordinary significance", the Burchfield house was the site and inspiration for several paintings of the artist's paintings. His contribution to twentieth century American art is also recognized in his adopted hometown of Buffalo where the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College was founded in 1966 to make his paintings and archival materials permanently accessible to the public. Indeed, the center holds the most extensive collection of Burchfield's paintings, drawings, sketchbooks, and journals, and organizes thematic exhibitions and events that contextualize his life and work.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Charles Burchfield
- Charles E. Burchfield: The Sacred WoodsBy Nancy Weekly
- American RealismBy Gerry Souter
- Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles BurchfieldBy Robert Gober, Cynthia Burlingham, Dave Hickey, Tullis Johnson, and Nancy Weekly