Charles E. Burchfield

 
         
  Untitled w/Ice Cutters verso  

Untitled w Ice Cutting

Watercolor on Paper w/image on verso
Image Size 21 1/2 x 27 1/2

His work is usually divided into three periods comprising figuration, houses and small town scenes; and abstractions depicting moods (frequently morbid and fearful). Insect and frog sounds have their own calligraphic strokes, and cicada sounds are depicted with zigzag strokes radiating outward; flowers and houses seem to have faces, not always pleasant.

Early Work

Burchfield's style was largely developed by the summer of 1915, after his junior year at the Cleveland School of Art, as he sketched and painted constantly in and around Salem, OH, "gathering the materials for a lifetime," according to his journals. Exposed in school to modernist European trends, he developed an almost fauvist use of broad areas of simplified color, enlivened by delightful particularizations of nature, and in 1917, began combining visual motifs projecting human moods, often disturbing, into the pictures. 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 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."

Middle Work

In his middle period, from 1919 until 1943, prompted partly by the need to provide financially for his new family with salable pictures for the New York art market, he depicted small-town and industrial scenes that put him in the category of the American Scene or Regionalist movement, and he was able to support himself through his painting from 1928, when he resigned his wallpaper design position at Birge & Co. in Buffalo, NY. 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 one of America's 10 greatest painters.

Late Work

In his late period, from 1943 on, possibly facing a psychological crisis as he turned 50, 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.

 
 
 
       
 

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