One of American’s foremost watercolorists, Charles Burchfield is an artist who defies categorization. While his work has been linked with movements such as Realism, Expressionism, American Scene painting, Regionalism, and Modernism, Burchfield was first and foremost a visionary painter who sought to capture the mood and hidden essence of his surroundings, ranging from the natural world to the man-made. Drawn to the commonplace subjects he encountered in rural Ohio and western New York––whether it be a dandelion seed blowing in the wind, a ramshackle house, falling rain, or a field of wildflowers, Burchfield was, in his own words, a “romantic realist”: an intuitive painter who interpreted his motifs with a pictorial vocabulary that was uniquely his own.
Born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, to William Charles Burchfield, a tailor, and his wife, Alice, a schoolteacher, Burchfield was raised in the nearby industrial town of Salem. A loner as a child, Burchfield loved to explore the fields and meadowlands around Salem—such as Pine Hollow, Bentley’s Woods, and Trotter’s Swamp––an activity that enhanced his powers of observation and prompted an early interest in becoming a naturalist. However, the urge to paint and draw the flora, fauna, and insects that he encountered on his walks was stronger; so strong, in fact, that in 1911 Burchfield succumbed to a bout of nervous exhaustion after attempting to depict some flowers.
During 1911 and 1912, Burchfield worked part-time at the W. H. Mullins Company (a metal-fabricating firm) in order to accumulate the funds that would allow him to study art. He subsequently spent four years at the Cleveland School of Art (known today as the Cleveland Institute of Art), where, from 1912 to 1916, he received instruction in painting, illustration, and design from artists such as Henry G. Keller, who introduced him to the ease and spontaneity of watercolor, which became Burchfield’s principal medium. Through Keller and other teachers, Burchfield was also exposed to recent trends in modern art, including post-impressionist painting, with its emphasis on bold colors and dark outlines. He was also introduced to the design principles espoused by Arthur Wesley Dow and likewise familiarized himself with Chinese scroll painting and Japanese prints, all of which inspired his later concern for decorative patterning. In the meantime, the writings of Henry David Thoreau, Willa Cather, and other authors informed his growing obsession with the natural world.
Burchfield began painting steadily in 1915. In the autumn of 1916, he enrolled at the school of the National Academy of Design in New York on a scholarship. However, homesick and disheartened by the academy’s life class, he quit after attending a single session. Notwithstanding the brevity of his studies, the few weeks that Burchfield spent in New York were significant, for it was there that he befriended Mary Mowbray-Clarke of the Sunrise Turn Bookshop, who exhibited and promoted his work from 1916 until 1922.
Back in Salem, Burchfield returned to his job as an accountant at the Mullins Company and painted in his spare time. In about 1917––his so-called “Golden Year”––he painted fanciful and highly imaginative landscapes using devices such as distorted forms and a lively shorthand style to imbue his images with an otherworldly quality. (Baur, The Inlander, p. 58.) An astute draftsman, Burchfield’s paintings from this early phase of his career also demonstrate a strong affinity for graphic accents, as evidenced by the curves, curlicues, and calligraphic strokes he used to suggest sounds—the croaking of frogs, the chirping of crickets, the ringing of bells—and convey a state of mind. Basing many of his subjects on childhood memories, Burchfield’s dream-like paintings ranged from the lyrical to the eerie and the macabre. As he described it, “I tried to re-create such moods as fear of the dark, the feelings of flowers before a storm, and even to visualize the songs of insects and other sounds” (Charles Burchfield, “On the Middle Border,” Creative Art 3 [September 1928], p. xxviii). In 1917 alone, the artist produced over 400 pieces, among them such masterworks as The Insect Chorus (1917; Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, New York).
In July 1918, Burchfield was inducted into the army, where he was assigned to the Camouflage Section. Prior to his departure––which he dreaded––he conveyed his emotions in his paintings by making “a tree or woods look sad, or even insane” (Burchfield, “On the Middle Border,” p. xxix). However, this period of fantasy and innovation would soon come to an end. Following his discharge in January 1919, Burchfield returned to Salem, where, for a few months, he depicted birds in magical forest settings. However, after reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, he turned his attention to more realistic portrayals of the mundane houses, wooden sidewalks, and desolate factories of eastern Ohio, as in The False Front (1920–21; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). As Burchfield later recalled, “What chiefly interested me about ... [these subjects] was their picturesqueness, and in some cases, quaint humor and romance of days departed. If I presented them in all their garish and crude primitiveness and unlovely decay, it was merely through a desire to be honest about them” (Burchfield, “On the Middle Border,” p. xxx).
Through the efforts of Mary Mowbray-Clarke, Burchfield had his first one-man show at the Kervorkian Galleries in New York in 1920. One year later, he left Salem and moved to Buffalo, New York, to take a job at M. H. Birge and Sons, where he designed wallpapers and upholstery fabrics using plant and floral motifs as the basis for his patterns. On May 20, 1922, Burchfield married Bertha Kenreich and three years later settled in Gardenville, a quiet neighborhood in West Seneca, New York, where he lived and painted for the rest of his life.
Notwithstanding his upstate residency, Burchfield retained a strong connection with the lively and ever-competitive New York art world, initially through his association with the Montross Gallery, which handled his work from 1924 until 1928. In 1929, he was introduced to Edward Wales Root, a pioneering collector of contemporary American art from Clinton, New York, who became his first important patron. Upon acquiring several examples of Burchfield’s early work, Root put him in touch with Frank K. M. Rehn, the prominent New York gallerist who became his dealer as well as his friend. (Rehn’s stable of artists included such notables as Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh.) The timing was propitious. Feeling increasingly dissatisfied with his job, where he was now head designer, Burchfield resigned from Birge and Sons to paint full-time. The artist was no doubt reassured that he had made the right decision when the Museum of Modern Art devoted its first one-person show to Burchfield’s early watercolors in 1930. Impressed by the individuality of Burchfield’s art––especially his desire to translate sounds, movement, and feeling into paint––the museum’s director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., referred to the work as representing “one of the most isolated and original phenomena in American art” (as quoted in John I. H. Baur, “Charles Burchfield: Origins of Greatness,” Timeline [June-July 1986], p. 3).
Following his move to western New York and throughout the 1930s, Burchfield painted nature less frequently. Instead, his paintings from his so-called “middle period” (1921–42) were dominated by brooding and often somber images of the urban landscape, from the shabby Victorian homes of Depression-era Buffalo to motifs such as drawbridges, viaducts, grain elevators, and the steamships that plied the waters of Lake Erie. Burchfield was also commissioned to portray the railroad yards of Pennsylvania (1936) and the coal and sulfur mines of Texas and West Virginia (1937) for Fortune magazine, projects that, along with his depictions of his daily surroundings in western New York, prompted many critics to link him with Regionalism and the American Scene movement—labels he dismissed, stating “The American scene has no more significance than any other subject matter. While I feel strongly the personality of a given scene, my chief aim in painting it is the expression of a completely personal mood” (Benjamin Rowland, Jr., “Burchfield’s Seasons,” Bulletin of the Fogg Art Museum 10 [November 1946], p. 155).
Despite the fact that his watercolors from the 1920s and 1930s enhanced his reputation in national art circles, the “spirit of Salem” remained firmly imbedded in Burchfield’s psyche (Bauer, “Charles Burchfield: Origins of Greatness,” p. 9). A pivotal moment in his career occurred in 1943, when, musing on the past, Burchfield decided to change the direction of his art. Writing in his journal on March 29, 1943, he declared that his “best, most original work is in the field of nature, the change of season, and weather; yet the art world generally does not recognize this” (as quoted in J. Benjamin Townsend, ed., Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place [Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1993], p. 501). As he told Frank Rehn, his work from the past two decades “had been a digression, a necessary one, but not truly in the main stream that I feel I am destined to travel” (as quoted in “Charles Burchfield Dies at 73; Artist Known for Water-Colors,” New York Times, January 11, 1968, p. 25). Accordingly, Burchfield abandoned his somber townscapes and industrial scenes and returned to the imaginative nature themes that had occupied his attention back in eastern Ohio.
Burchfield’s longing for the “old forgotten moods” he experienced outdoors as a boy was subsequently manifested in the mystical watercolors and drawings he produced from 1943 until the end of his career––works of art in which, through his use of agitated brushwork and stylized shapes, he translated his feelings and the underlying rhythms of nature, into paint; once again, insects, flowers, and plants, along with the wind, sun and moon, the seasons and the weather, came to dominate his highly subjective iconography (“Charles Burchfield Dies at 73.”). By the early 1950s, Burchfield’s paintings had become larger in size and more abstract and spontaneous in tone. Although collectors and the art press were initially stymied by the artist’s return to his earlier preoccupation with nature and his vigorous expressionistic style, they eventually came to admire the idiosyncrasy of his subject matter and the freshness and vitality of his approach––so much so that the watercolors he created during his third period (1943–67) are considered his finest and most popular work.
As his career continued to flourish during the 1950s, Burchfield made frequent trips to New York to visit his dealer, explore the museums, and serve on juries for organizations such as the Guggenheim Foundation. In addition to exhibiting his work in New York, where he was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1952 and an academician two years later, Burchfield displayed his paintings at museums and galleries in Philadelphia, Chicago, and elsewhere in the United States, as well as at venues abroad. In 1956, a major retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Although less prolific after about 1955, when his health began to decline, Burchfield continued to paint in his Gardenville studio until his death from a heart attack in West Seneca on January 10, 1967. Today, the most extensive collection of his work, as well as his archive of letters, clippings, and other memorabilia can be found at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College. As eloquent with his words as he was with his brush, Burchfield chronicled his observations and musings on nature in his journals, published as Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place in 1993.