Editor's note: The following essay [1] by Nannette V. Maciejunes and Michael D. Hall was published in Resource Library on September 14, 2004.



 

The Paintings of Charles Burchfield

 

For recent writers on the history of American art the noted watercolorist Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) has become an increasingly elusive figure, often easier to overlook than to include. Indeed, because of the broad stylistic reach of his paintings, Burchfield often appears to be more than one artist, with scholars and admirers feeling obliged to champion one aspect of his work at the expense of others. Celebrated variously as a precocious young modernist, as a pioneer of the American Scene, and as an idiosyncratic expressionist who painted nature, Burchfield is an artist whose career seems at odds with itself. A new exhibition, The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest, organized by the Columbus Museum of Art, and now at the National Museum of American Art, challenges this fragmented view of the artist. By tracing his career through major recurrent themes in his paintings, the exhibition promotes Burchfield as a singular creative personality keenly attuned to the art world of his time.

Born in the midwest at close of the nineteenth century, Burchfield was the fifth child of a struggling merchant-tailor who would die before Charles was six years old. Burchfield's widowed mother kept the family together by returning to her hometown of Salem, Ohio. There her brothers bought her a small house to live in, and her children began taking jobs to help support the family. Despite such economic hardship, Burchfield considered his boyhood an idyllic time. Growing up in small town America, he absorbed the Victorian belief in the extraordinary imaginative power of childhood, and developed a deep, life-long love of nature by spending countless hours wandering through the woods and hollows near Salem. Memories of this childhood haunted Burchfield as an adult and provided the moorings for his creative imagination throughout his life. In countless paintings, Burchfield returned again and again to the sites, sensations and emotions of his childhood for his subjects.

After graduating at the top of his high school class and working for a year to save money to continue his education, Burchfield entered the Cleveland School (now Institute) of Art in the fall of 1912. Contrary to the mythicized biography which portrays him as a self-invented genius, Burchfield actually pursued a rigorous course of study in Cleveland that would exert a profound influence on him for the rest of his artistic life.

In Burchfield's time Cleveland was an active regional art center fully aware of modernism. Its galleries held exhibitions of cubism and expressionism, and several of its more militant artists allied themselves with the European avant garde by calling themselves "secessionists." Laukhoff's Bookstore, where Burchfield exhibited many of his early works, stocked its shelves with European and American avant-garde art and literary magazines.

Although Burchfield originally entered art school with the intention of becoming a commercial illustrator, he was soon drawn into the city's modernist circles and decided to become a serious painter. He was supported in this decision by his most influential teacher, Henry G. Keller, a painter who exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show. Years later Burchfield credited Keller (along with William Sommer, another Cleveland modernist) with passing the Armory Show's "revolutionary liberal outlook onto us."[l] Even Burchfield's choice to work almost exclusively in watercolor was grounded in the importance of the medium in Cleveland. Many of Burchfield's early watercolors show a striking affinity with the work of his Cleveland mentors and associates. Ironically, when this same early work was later exhibited in New York it helped perpetuate the image of Burchfield as a self-invented artist. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., director of the Museum of Modern Art, declared that the paintings were "one of the most isolated and original phenomena in American art," and that it was "impossible to discover any important external influence upon Burchfield's art."[2]

Burchfield graduated from art school in the spring of 1916 and received a scholarship to attend New York's National Academy of Design that fall. After an aborted attempt to study at the NAD that seems to have lasted no more than a few days, Burchfield abandoned both the program and future formal study. Years later, in fact, Burchfield, downplaying his formal training, would designate 1915 (his junior year in art school) as the "true beginning" of his career. [3]

His brief 1916 sojourn would turn out to be the only time Burchfield would ever actually live in New York City. The contacts he made during those few months, however, were critical in launching his career. Most important among those acquaintances was Mary Mowbray-Clarke, the co-owner of a small avant-garde books hop in New York called the Sunwise Turn. Mowbray-Clarke was the first to sell and exhibit Burchfield's work in the city.[4] She was well connected and introduced Burchfield and his work into a complex web of writers, artists and patrons which included among others Eugene O'Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur B. Davies, Maurice Prendergast, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Marie Sterner, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Peggy Guggenheim.

Mowbray-Clarke's promotion of the young Ohio artist would lead not only to his first major New York show at Kervorkain Gallery in 1920 but to a solo exhibition at the Harvard Liberal Club (1921), and an exhibition which traveled to galleries in London and Paris (1923-1924). It ultimately even lead to the one-man show of Burchfield's early work presented by Alfred Barr at the Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 1930.[5]

Home in Salem in late 1916, Burchfield returned to the job that he had held during his summers throughout art school and committed himself to painting. The artist described this time as a "dream world of the imagination" when memories of his boyhood first began to haunt him. Burchfield was primarily a painter of place and for him Salem and its countryside were the embodiment of his boyhood now transformed "by the magic of an awakened art outlook." As he explained later, "Surrounded by the familiar scenes of my boyhood, there gradually evolved the idea of recreating impressions of that period, the appearances of houses, the feeling of woods and fields, memories of seasonal impressions.... As I progressed with this idea I went back further into childhood memories.... I tried to recreate such moods as fear of the dark, the feeling of flowers before a storm, and even to visualize the songs of insects and other sounds."[6]

Despite working as an accounting clerk five and half days a week, Burchfield painted a prodigious number of works after his return to Salem. In later years he frequently cited 1917 as his "Golden Year," for it was in that year that he produced over two hundred pictures.

Although it is the paintings of childhood moods and memories that have become the best known works from this period, all of the major themes that Burchfield would explore over the course of his artistic career appeared in his paintings during these early years. His fascination with his immediate surroundings, for example, had already inspired the first paintings of his own backyard, a subject which he would address continually in a range of styles for more than fifty years.

Burchfield believed he had to know a place well before he could paint it. Familiarity sharpened his senses and inspired his creativity. In fact some of his most compelling and innovative works were inspired by ordinary things artistically observed -- the jumble of eaves and gables formed by his neighbor's roofs, the sag in the garden fence in the yard next door, or the tilt of the weathered drain spout on the side of his own house.

Likewise Burchfield's passionate response to nature would be a subject of his early Salem paintings. An avid admirer of John Burroughs and Henry David Thoreau, who firmly believed in the presence of the divine in nature, Burchfield was less attracted to prim gardens and brilliant autumnal foliage than to the power of storms; the wild, decaying undergrowth found in ravines; and the muddy remains of a dying winter. Rather than celebrating a season at its peak, Burchfield preferred to paint the transitions between the seasons, particularly the change from winter into spring or from autumn into winter.

Burchfield's origins as a Great Lakes regionalist also date from these years.[7] Even the industrial subjects, which traditionally have been associated almost exclusively with his middle decades (1920s-1930s), make their first appearance in paintings of 1917. In 1919 his interest in depicting the regional scene took on a new significance after he read Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson's newly published novel about small town America. Captivated by Anderson's ability to evoke mood and a sense of place, Burchfield went on to read Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Zona Gale, Theodore Dreiser and most likely Hamlin Garland, a novelist who frequently wrote about life in the midwest -- a region he referred to as the Middle Border. Inspired to create a visual counterpart to literary regionalism, Burchfield began to paint pictures that captured what he was soon calling "the great epic poetry of the mid-west." He even chose to entitle his own 1928 autobiographical article, On the Middle Border.

It would be through his depictions of the midwest that Burchfield would gain his first national acclaim. Critics of the 1920s heralded these works for their uncompromising honesty about American life, an honesty many believed could give Americans "a fresh vision of themselves" and enable them to see "the rich colors of the everyday world." Although some critics misunderstood the paintings as satiric social commentaries, most saw them as candid portrayals of "the unreconciled beauty and ugliness" that characterized life in the midwest. As Burchfield's friend and colleague Edward Hopper would explain, "From what is to the mediocre artist and the unseeing layman the boredom of every day existence...[Burchfield] has extracted a quality that we may call poetic, romantic, and lyric.... By sympathy with the particular he has made it epic and universal."[8]

Acclaim did not find Burchfield in his beloved Salem but rather in his new home in Buffalo, New York, where he had moved in late 1921. Remembering Burchfield's extraordinary talent in design, one of his former art school teachers had helped the young artist obtain a job designing wallpaper for the Buffalo firm of M. H. Birge and Sons. Soon after his arrival he married his Salem sweetheart and started a family. In 1925 he bought the house in the Buffalo suburb of Gardenville where he would live and paint until his death more than forty years later. In 1929 encouraged by his growing reputation as an artist and with the support of his new dealer, Frank Rehn, Burchfield quit his job at Birge to devote himself full time to painting.

By the 1930s Burchfield (along with Hopper) was widely acknowledged as a pioneer of the American Scene. Throughout the thirties, forties and well into the fifties, Burchfield's paintings were the subject of numerous solo exhibitions and were frequently included in major regional, national and international exhibitions, at which they were often awarded prizes. The Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo honored Burchfield's achievements with his first major retrospective in 1944.

As a major figure in the American art world of the time, Burchfield was also active as an exhibition juror, who helped to form the realist and regionalist aesthetic of the era. In 1930 he served on the jury of the Carnegie International and at the end of the decade served on the regional committee to select work for the exhibition of contemporary American art at the 1939 New York World's Fair. In 1941 he joined a national panel of his peers to curate the Carnegie's Directions in American Painting and from 1940 to 1955 he served on the Guggenheim Fellowship selection committee. Additionally from 1943 to 1946 he acted as an art advisor to the Encyclopedia Britannica Collection.

Although he never abandoned regional scene subjects, as the thirties progressed Burchfield began to quietly paint and exhibit other subjects, including romantic landscapes, which were less specifically regionalist in spirit. Little interested in the art politics of the American Scene that were so closely identified with Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, Burchfield began to actively disassociate himself from regionalism as an art movement in the late 1930s.

During the 1940s, as critical interest in the American Scene waned, Burchfield reinvented himself as an expressionist painter of nature fantasies. In his initial attempts to revive the spirit of fantasy that he felt was so vital in his early work, Burchfield returned to his early Salem paintings for inspiration and created a powerful link between them and his mature Buffalo work. Pasting strips of paper around existing early watercolors which were still in his studio, Burchfield expanded and reworked the entire composition to create works which he later called his "reconstructions."

Although readily understandable as an extension of the artist's life-long intimacy with nature, his large-scale expressionist landscapes should also be understood as the painter's personal response to the American art world of the 1940s and 1950s-an art world that had embraced abstract expressionism and was now interested in art that expressed spirituality and the artist's interior self. Burchfield's ability to recast himself is already dearly evident in the introduction he wrote for a 1945 book on his paintings: "So many things about painting, the real things, are intangible or of an abstract nature.... When actually painting, the heat of creation may be so intense that his [the artist's] execution becomes completely subconscious.... While I feel strongly the personality of a given scene...my chief aim in painting it is the expression of a completely personal mood." [9]

In 1956 Burchfield was given a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Eager to make Burchfield relevant to a new art audience, John 1. H. Baur, the exhibition's curator, paid particular attention to the ambitious large-scale expressionist watercolors, which the artist was producing in his late period. By the time Baur published his major study on Burchfield in 1982 and organized another retrospective, this time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Burchfield had been dead nearly two decades.[10] Baur's vision of Burchfield as a mystical expressionist, however, thrived and became the prevailing interpretation of the artist among collectors, museum curators and scholars. His view of Burchfield as "the last Pantheist" cemented a popular and critical perception of Burchfield as America's great eccentric nature painter -- a perception which has remained unshakable until now.

Every era re-imagines and reinterprets its past. A culture keeps what it can use and discards that for which it no longer has a purpose. Burchfield the modernist or Burchfield the eccentric nature painter may well be as unneeded today as Burchfield the realist became in the 1950s. However, Burchfield as a kind of post-modernist may very much warrant our current attention and affection. The Charles Burchfield that emerges from the Columbus Museum's retrospective speaks directly to a present time newly attentive to issues of self and place. His vision survives as an ongoing critique of the American art experience. His unique regionalism seems newly resonant with the tone and temper of contemporary political life. In the end, however, the most compelling argument for Burchfield today (as always) resides in his pictures themselves. They are singular and beautiful. Celebrated in an exhibition for the 1990s, the art of Charles Burchfield emerges as a challenge well worth revisiting.

 

Notes:

1. Charles Burchfield, "Autobiographical Notes: Life and Career," typescript, undated, p. 4, library of the Whitney Museum of American Art. For an in-depth discussion of the influence of Cleveland's artistic milieu on Burchfield see William H. Robinson, ''Native Sons: Burchfield and to Cleveland School of Art," in The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest (New York: Abrams, 1997), pp. 62-72.

2. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Introduction in Charles Burchfield: Early Watercolors) 1916-1918 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1930): 6.

3. Charles Burchfield, "Fifty Years as a Painter" in Charles Burchfield: His Golden Year (Tucson: University of New Mexico, 1965), p. 15.

4. For an in-depth study of the influence of Mary Mowbray-Clarke on Burchfield's career see M. Sue Kendall, "Serendipity at the Sunwise Turn: Mary Mowbray-Clarke and the Early Patronage of Charles Burchfield" in The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest (New York: Abrams, 1997), pp. 89-99.

5. The 1930 MoMa exhibition is also attributable to the auspices of Edward W. Root who rediscovered Burchfield's early work in 1929 and also had connections to Alfred Barr.

6. Charles Burchfield, "On the Middle Border," Creative Art (September, 1928): p. 28.

7. For an in-depth discussion of this subject see Michael D. Hall, "Burchfield's Regionalism: The Middle Border and the Great Divide," in The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest (New York: Abrams, 1997), pp. 73-88.

8. Edward Hopper," Charles Burchfield: American," Arts, 14 (July 1928): p.5.

9. Charles Burchfield, Foreward, Charles Burchfield, 13 (New York: American Artists Group, 1945): unpag.

10. John 1. H. Baur, The Inlander: Life and Work of Charles Burchfield 1893-1967 (Newark: University of Delaware and New York: Cornwall, 1982).

 

 

About Nannette V. Maciejunes:

Nannette V. Maciejunes is Executive Director of the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, OH. Ms. Maciejunes was Senior Curator at the Museum when the essay was written. She has written numerous essays published in catalogues for exhibitions.

 

RL Editor's Note:

1. Nannette V. Maciejunes and Michael D. Hall are co-authors of the above 1997 essay, previously published in American Art Review, Volume IX, Number 5, September - October 1997, with accompanying illustrations. The essay was written concerning an exhibit held at the National Museum of American Art (now named Smithsonian American Art Museum) from September 26, 1997 to January 25, 1998. The essay was reprinted in Resource Library with permission of Ms. Maciejunes. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact Ms.Maciejunes by writing to: Columbus Museum of Art, 480 E. Broad Street, Columbus, OH. We wish to extend our appreciation to Ms. Nancy Turner of the Columbus Museum of Art for help in making contact with the author. For further information on the exhibition please see: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield (9/16/97).

 

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rev. 9/19/06


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