Charles Burchfield (1893-1967)

Marked by sensitivity and passion in response to nature, Charles Burchfield created visionary paintings of mid-western American landscapes. As a lonely youth in Salem, Ohio, Burchfield withdrew into nearby woodlands. There, he developed an awareness of its sounds, smells and sights by exploring, sketching, and even painting in times of pouring rain. Post high school in 1912, he studied at the Cleveland School of Art and the National Academy of Design in New York. Burchfield was not interested in the Parisian modernistic battles or the Armory Show in New York. His introduction to Chinese scrolls and Japanese prints inspired him to adopt simple forms. He developed a type of calligraphic shorthand for reproducing sounds, and types of stroked abstractions to depict personal moods. This first phase focused on childhood memories and fantasies in a flat, patterned manner, lasting until 1918. The year 1917 was Burchfield’s golden year or his Salem period, when his production exploded in creating two to three watercolors per week.

Following 1918, part of his work included Social Realism in depicting grimy streets around eastern Ohio. The middle phase of his career included residence in Buffalo, New York, familial life, and working as a designer for a wallpaper company. After 1943, he taught at the University of Minnesota, Duluth and the Art Institute of Buffalo. Burchfield eventually returned to painting his source of solace, the natural environment, this time more grandeur in size and charged with ecstatic poetic overtones. He utilized swirling strokes, exaggerated forms, and heightened colors as techniques to intensify his communication of nature. The watercolor medium provided him with the means to interpret his surrounding into paintings charged with a joyful yet brooding mood. Burchfield yearned to paint not simply the visual, but utilizing symbols to enable the natural environment before him to exhibit the reality witnessed. In his late career, he received many honors, including a retrospective in 1956 at the Whitney Museum and the 1966 opening dedication at Buffalo State College of the Charles Burchfield Center for the arts.