Charles Burchfield, American (1893 - 1967)

Charles Burchfield

Charles Ephraim Burchfield an American watercolor painter, was born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio. He is known for his visual commentaries on the effects of Industrialism on small town America as well as for his paintings of nature. His paintings are in the collections of many major museums in the USA and have been the subject of exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art as well as other prominent institutions.

Burchfield was raised by his mother in Salem, Ohio. Most of his early works were done at this house, where he lived from the ages of five to twenty-eight, and which has since been converted into a museum. He graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1916. Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York in 1921, where he was employed as a designer at the Birge wallpaper company.

In 1925, Burchfield moved from Buffalo to the adjacent suburb of West Seneca, New York, spending the rest of his life in the rural neighborhood of Gardenville.

According to Burchfield's friend and colleague Edward Hopper, "The work of Charles Burchfield is most decidedly founded, not on art, but on life, and the life that he knows and loves best."

His work is usually divided into three periods:

The highly original early work, from 1915 until 1919 (he graduated Cleveland School of Art in 1916), combined an almost fauvist use of color with experiments involving the depiction of the sounds of nature mixed with personal moods. He developed a personal shorthand calligraphy for sounds (typically insects and frogs) and abstractions depicting moods (frequently morbid and fearful). Cicada sounds are depicted with zigzag strokes radiating outward, and flowers and houses seem to have faces, not always pleasant. Assigned to the camouflage unit in the Army in 1918, he even worked his designs into painting schemes disguising tanks and artificial hills. Biographers note his exposure to modernist European art trends and traditional Chinese painting while in art school but overlook that the hallucinatory quality in his work may be partly traced to an episode of nervous exhaustion in 1911 while a junior in high school. Determined to record all the area's flowering plants that spring, he stayed up late at night painting whole bouquets of the blooms and had a bout of what was referred to at the time as "brain fever," which might now be termed mania. He seems to have learned to use it as source of energy and inspiration, and his school transcript records only three days' absence that semester. Painting constantly from 1915, even while working full time in summer and after college, he sketched on walks to and from home at lunchtime and completed paintings based on them at night. Half of his lifetime output of paintings was produced while living in Salem from 1915 to 1917. The fact that so many paintings of this period were depictions of scenes visible from the windows of his boyhood home prompted Henry Adams, curator of drawings at the Cleveland Museum of Art, to call it "the most important house in American art history."

In his middle period, from 1919 until 1943, he depicted small-town and industrial scenes that put him in the category of the American Scene or Regionalist movement. These large paintings have a solid look unusual in watercolors, resembling oil paintings, and they are the works most often seen in art history texts. Though one critic commented that Burchfield was "Edward Hopper on a rainy day," a 1936 Life Magazine article named him as one of America's ten greatest painters.

In his late period, from 1943 on, possibly facing a psychological crisis as he turned fifty years old, he returned to the preoccupations of the early work, incorporating the painting skills he had mastered during his middle period (which he eventually saw as a "diversion" from his true path), and developed large, hallucinatory renditions of nature captured in swirling strokes, heightened colors and exaggerated forms. In his writings he expressed an aim to depict an earlier era in the history of human consciousness when man saw gods and spirits in natural objects and forces, and art historian and critic John Canaday predicted in a 1966 New York Times review that the grandeur and power of these pictures would be Burchfield's enduring achievement.

The Charles Burchfield Center at Buffalo State College was dedicated in his honor in 1966. It was re-named The Burchfield Art Center in 1983 with an expanded mission to support a multi-arts focus. Between 1991 and 1994, the museum received a series of gifts from Charles Rand Penney, Ph. D., of more than 1,300 works by Western New York artists. Included in that gift were 183 works by Charles E. Burchfield. In honor of such a substantial donation the museum was again re-named as The Burchfield-Penney Art Center.

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