HomeStudying the MastersMonday’s Muse: Charles Burchfield

Winter Trees in Moonlight, Charles BurchfieldWinter Moonlight, 1951

I remember clearly the first time I beheld one of Charles Burchfield’s paintings―Winter Moonlight―in the magazine American Heritage, December 1993. I don’t remember where I was, or how I came about this magazine, but I do remember the feeling that struck me―mysticism and excitement wrapped up in a vibrant yes!―when I saw that painting. I still have that magazine, tucked on a shelf between Ma Lien and the Magic Brush and The Little Prince. That’s pretty prime real estate on my bookshelf!

The Luminous Tree, Charles Burchfield,  1917The Luminous Tree, 1917

Up until that time I had loved only one other artist in this way―Walter Inglis Anderson (whose work is indeed dearest to my heart, and I will share some of his paintings with you on a future Monday’s Muse post). Much like Walter Anderson’s work, Burchfield’s paintings reverberate with pattern and vibrancy, although his palette is, in general, more subdued. His paintings often make use of dark angular lines that sometimes convey a powerful shadow energy, and other times capture the energetic essence of a tree or landscape.

Trees, Charles Burchfield, 1917Trees, 1917

Tree, Charles Burchfield, 1916Tree, 1916

Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967) was born in Ashtabula, Ohio. When he was five his father died and he and his mother moved to Salem, Ohio, where he lived until he was 28. He graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1916.

Past Noon, Charles November Sun Emerging, Charles BurchfieldPast Noon, 1916

Poplars in May, Charles BurchfieldPoplars in May, 1916

From 1915 to 1917 he painted almost constantly. Throughout his life he was a prolific painter, but during these years he produced half of his lifetime’s work―approximately 700 paintings―while working by day at a metal manufacturing plant. This fact alone blows my mind! In my research there were some suggestions that perhaps Burchfield suffered from manic episodes. Evidence for this is very thin, but I do wonder what exactly gave him such creative stamina.

Countryside Panorama at Sunset, Charles Burchfield, 1917Countryside Panorama at Sunset, 1917

Sunrise in the Forest, Charles Burchfield Sunrise in the Forest, 1917

In 1921 he moved to Buffalo, New York and began working for the H. M. Birge wallpaper company as a designer. In 1922 he married Bertha Kenreich. By 1928 he had five children and had sought out artist-gallerist Frank Rehn in an effort to make a living selling his art. This was just before the Great Depression. Remarkably (is there anything unremarkable about this man?) he was financially successful enough to support his family with his art through the hard years of the Depression.

Big Coal, Charles BurchfieldBig Coal

During this period his work took on a totally different style. He painted buildings and scenes from small town America. A lot of these works are dark and rainy, architectural and solid.

Rainy NIght, Buffalo, Charles BurchfieldRainy Night, Buffalo

Around his fiftieth birthday, Burchfield began to reclaim the energy and focus of his earlier works. His paintings take on a luminous quality, with patterns of line that seem celebratory, even symphonic. He said of this time, “As an artist grows older, he has to fight disillusionment and learn to establish the same relation to nature as an adult, as he had when a child.”

Glory of Spring, Charles BurchfieldGlory of Spring, 1950

Often described as hallucinatory, Burchfield’s later work expressed his awe of the spiritual aspect of Nature. Trees seem to be lit with an inner fire, and the sky pulses with primal source energy.

The Four Seasons, Charles Burchfield, 1961-1962The Four Seasons, 1961-1962

Sun, Drought,  and Corn, Charles Burchfield,  1961-1962Sun, Drought, and Corn, 1962

Burchfield was a watercolorist, though his use of the then maligned medium was unusual in that he used very little water. Of this he said in an interview with John D. Morse for the Smithsonian:  “I’ve used [watercolor] ever since I was a child, and it never presented any problems. It’s as easy for me to work in water colors as for the ordinary person who isn’t an artist to use pencil or pen. There’s no thought required. The only thought that is required is what I’m going to do, what I’m going to put down. But the putting of it down is just as simple as breathing.”

Wood Lilies, Charles BurchfieldWood Lilies, 1944-1962

Like Lawren Harris, who I profiled in this Monday’s Muse post, Burchfield was an avid plein air painter. He was a watercolorist, though he worked with the medium with very little water. He painted thunderstorms, wind, and fires; indeed he seemed to seek out and absorb the more tempestuous weather into his paintings:

Painted all day with vigor and forcefulness – at times snow fell, and towards the last, my sponge & water froze. What unalloyed happiness there is in working under such conditions! – “Battling the elements,” – the painting takes on a character it could not have under milder conditions.

November Sun Emerging, Charles BurchfieldNovember Sun Emerging, 1956-1959

Always a lover of Nature, he had as a child considered becoming a nature writer, and kept extensive  journals throughout his life. You can read excerpts at the website for the Burchfield Penney Art Center or hunt down a copy of this compilation, “The Poetry of Place.”

Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon, Charles Burchfield, 1961-1965Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon, 1961-1965

The agonizing mystery of Infinity. It is impossible ever for man to comprehend it, but it is always there in the background of my life. Infinity in time and space; it is impossible to our puny minds, yet it has to be. I know that it should not concern me, that of more importance to me are the beauties of the world I know—the joy of sunlight on the glossy needles of the hemlocks in early spring, or the flaming glory of a meadow of dandelions in bloom, the song of a songsparrow on a pussy willow branch hanging over a stream—yet there it is, eternally nagging at my consciousness.


Sunspots, Charles Burchfield Sunspots, 1951

Burchfield died in 1967 of a heart attack. The year before his museum was inaugurated at the State University College at Buffalo. You can watch a two-part video retrospective of his work and life here.

I like to think of myself―as an artist―as being in a nondescript swamp, up to my knees in mire, painting the vital beauty I see there, in my own way, not caring a damn about tradition, or anyone’s opinion.”                                   Charles Burchfield, February 8, 1938

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