CHARLES EPHRAIM BURCHFIELD (1893–1967)
Cobwebs in Autumn, 1949
Watercolor on paper, 18 x 25 in.
Signed (at lower right): CEB [monogram] / 1949
RECORDED: The Drawings of Charles E. Burchfield, exhib. cat. (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1953), pp. 11, 26 // Joseph S. Trovato, Charles Burchfield: Catalogue of Paintings in Public and Private Collections, exhib. cat. (Utica, New York: Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, 1979), p. 234 no. 1051
EXHIBITED: Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries, New York, April 10–May 10, 1950, Charles Burchfield
EX COLL.: the artist; to [Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries, New York, 1950]; to John Wendell Straus (1920–2008), 1950, and by descent in the family, until the present
Cobwebs in Autumn was executed in Gardenville in 1949, six years after Burchfield changed course and turned his attention to what he described as “totally new pure fantasy interpretations of nature.” As was his practice, the artist initially explored his motif in a preliminary drawing, in this case a delicate ink study titled Sun and Cobwebs (1949; Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey), which features some modest wood frame buildings on the right, a tall tree silhouetted against a broad expanse of sky, and an array of decomposing flora in the foreground.
In Cobwebs in Autumn Burchfield alternates between thin, transparent washes and a heavier application of watercolor, while allowing portions of the underlying ground to emerge throughout the composition as a means of creating volume and light. He conjoins this method with an energetic, doodle-like handling (akin to the calligraphic style of Chinese landscape painting) of the organic forms, a technique that helps evoke the myriad shapes and textures within the setting and imbues each species with a character, or personality, of their own. By contrast, the modest wood-frame buildings that Burchfield knew so well are rendered with the stylized shapes associated with Modernism, their emphatic lines and angles forming a contrast with the mysterious cosmos in the foreground––an intricate medley of spindly plants (including goldenrod, which blooms until October) interspersed here and there by silky, threadlike spider webs. Certainly, the watercolor underscores Burchfield’s enduring concern for seasonal change, the passage of time, and the cycles of nature; as he once proclaimed: “I love the approach of winter, the retreat of winter, the change from snow to rain and vice-versa; the decay of vegetation and the resurgence of plant life in the spring. These to me are exciting and beautiful, an endless panorama, of beauty and drama” (Charles Burchfield, quoted in John I. H. Baur, Charles Burchfield, exhib. cat. [New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1956], p. 70).
Cobwebs in Autumn was included in Burchfield’s solo exhibition at the Rehn Galleries in the spring of 1950. In a letter to the artist written on the day it closed, Rehn informed him that the show was well-attended and “generated real enthusiasm,” observing, ironically, that “Of course, there are always a few who think you should never paint anything but slushy streets and dilapidated houses. So what?” ([Frank K. M. Rehn] to “Charlie” [Charles Burchfield], May 10, 1950, typescript, Frank K. M. Gallery records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., photocopy, Hirschl & Adler Galleries archives). H
At Rehn, Cobwebs in Autumn caught the eye of John Wendell Straus (1920–2008), a discerning collector of “drawings and other works of art” who purchased the work from Rehn for $600.00 (“Straus, John Wendell,” New York Times, May 21, 2008. Cobwebs in Autumn is listed in an invoice [typescript, Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery records, photocopy in the Hirschl & Adler Galleries archives] Rehn prepared for Burchfield on November 1, 1950.) That Straus should have set his sights on acquiring the painting is not surprising, for during his years at Harvard University he was the first undergraduate given departmental permission to write his B.A. honors thesis on a living artist. (Straus went on to spend 25 years as an executive at R. H. Macy & Company, after which he served as Vice-President for the Arts at the State University of New York at Purchase. He was also a trustee of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum.) His study, “Charles E. Burchfield: An Interview with the Artist, and Account and Analysis of His Production, and a Catalogue of His Paintings” (Harvard University, 1942), helped pave the way for future scholarship on one of America’s most original artists.