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The Nature of Seeing



CHARLES BURCH The Nature of Seeing




T H E N AT U R E O F S E E I N G CHARLES BURCHFIELD (1893–1967) had an intensely personal,

spiritualized view of the world. His empathy with nature is evident in much of the work that he created over the course of more than fifty years. A keen observer of his surroundings, he depicted scenes with which he was familiar, often imbuing them with a visionary, almost mystical sensibility that was deeply felt Best known for his expressive landscapes of central Ohio and upstate New York, Burchfield also painted the austere imagery of industrial development and railroad yards, as well as the local architecture of towns and villages. Among his earliest watercolors are modernist views of his hometown of Salem, Ohio, and the surrounding countryside, in which he often emphasized mood and emotion, at times visualizing sounds through a series of symbols and stylizations that he developed through flashes of insight and imagination. (opposite)

Snow Flurries, c.1916 Gouache and watercolor on paper 20 x 13 7⁄8 inches Private Collection

(preceeding pages)

Snow Storm on Sweet Road, 1947 Watercolor, gouache, chalk, and charcoal on paper, 27 x 39 inches Private Collection

(title page)

February Wind and Sunlight, 1956 Watercolor and pencil on paper 16 5⁄8 x 21 5⁄8 inches Private Collection


During the middle years of his career, he was striving for increased realism in his work. He adopted a more direct approach and primarily focused on town and city life. Urban neighborhoods, street scenes, locomotives, grain elevators, and ships moored in the harbors of the Great Lakes, were favorite subjects. While landscape remained a central feature of his art as well, it usually took the form of a field bordered by houses and outbuildings, or an expanse of open space with a group of distant buildings and church steeples that defined the contours of small-town life. Even at his most realistic during the 1920s and ‘30s, Burchfield was not after literal depictions of the world around him. He was instead working towards a clarity of structure and design that was almost classical in form, yet also poetic in feeling. As he wrote at the time, he preferred to be known as a “romantic-realist,” adding that, “It is the romantic side of the real world that I portray. My things are poems— (I hope).”1

Sunlit Willows, 1915 Watercolor and pencil on paper 9 x 12 inches


Red Field, 1915 Watercolor and pencil on paper 10 x 13 7â „8 inches


Pastoral Scene, 1915

Watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper 9 x 12 inches



Chestnut Trees, 1916

Gouache, watercolor, and pencil on paper 20 x 13 7⁄8 inches (overleaf, detail)

Burchfield’s more expressive paintings were mainly done in the first decade and then again during the final period of his long career. While a student at the Cleveland School of Art from 1912 to 1916, he was introduced to major trends in European and American modernism, as well as Chinese and Japanese art, and contemporary design theory. His work before 1920 or so often evidences his strong interest in imaginative landscapes and a personal visual language of fantasy. In Chestnut Trees of 1916 [opposite], he transformed the natural world into a pattern of abstracted, stylized forms in heightened color. Curling shapes cover the ground at the base of two large tree trunks, while intertwining lines enliven their bark. Framing the silhouette of another tree in the background, they bring attention to a circular form buried deep in the center of the composition that appears to be vibrating or emitting energy, linking the painting to what Burchfield once called his “rhapsodic fantasies” of the period.2 The following year, 1917, was a particularly creative and productive one. Several decades later, in fact, Burchfield deemed it his “golden year.” After a brief stay in New York City the previous fall, he had reestablished himself in Salem, in the “town and countryside where I had grown up, which were now transformed by the magic of an awakened art outlook.”3 After venturing into the countryside, he painted Bloodroot (Black Ravine) [p. 29] in the early spring. Possibly inspired by a view of a ravine east of Little Beaver Creek near Salem, it speaks powerfully of seasonal transition. At lower right, the bloodroot, an early blooming perennial, is a harbinger of the new season in an abstracted landscape of rounded shapes and the tracery of barrens trees that will soon be renewed by a resurgent life force. Around the same time, Burchfield painted Noon [p. 31], a view of Salem, or some other nearby town, on an overcast day. The fluid handling of watercolor contrasts with the greater solidity of



Village Lights, c. 1920 Watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper 18 x 213⁄4 inches

gouache in Chestnut Trees, indicating his increasing dexterity with different water-based mediums, as well as his growing confidence as an artist. Colorful highlights of roofs, eaves, a telephone pole, and the paths that wind through the cluster of houses lighten the mood and provide an expressive counterpoint that animates the scene. Burchfield was away from Salem for half of the following year, serving in the army. Upon his return in January 1919, he resumed his job at a local metalworking company. He also continued his involvement with the modernist art scene in Cleveland that he had begun while a student at the Cleveland School of Art earlier in the decade. In the spring, a bookstore owner who also exhibited Burchfield’s work in his shop gave him a copy of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, which inspired him to read other contemporary realist novels by writers like Sinclair Lewis, Hamlin Garland, and Willa Cather. He soon “began to feel the great epic poetry of midwest American life, and my own life in connection with it,”as he later wrote.4 Determined to commit himself to portraying the realities of contemporary life, from industrial development to the rural landscape, he began searching surrounding towns and villages for subject matter.

Village Lights [opposite] of around 1920 is a view of one such Ohio town. While it retains some of the lyricism of his earliest watercolors, it also incorporates aspects of his new direction. Around this time, the artist began to reduce his compositions to a set of basic components, to a severe geometry of houses and factories, barren trees, and stylized smoke undulating across the sky. Here, he created a banded structure in which space recedes in a series of horizontals from the strip of snow in the bottom foreground to a clouded, overcast sky at top. The village is arrayed across the middle ground, rendered in an essential configuration of simplified structures. Similarly, Spring Twilight [p. 20] of 1920 is a strongly transitional work, but in this case, Burchfield combined modernist pictorial strategies



A Fallen Tree, 1917 Gouache on paper 17 1⁄2 x 20 1⁄2 inches Portland Museum of Art, Maine


Tree and Brook, c. 1917 Watercolor and gouache on paper 26 1⁄2 x 19 1⁄8 inches


Spring Twilight, 1920

Watercolor, gouache, charcoal, and chalk on paper 20 3⁄4 x 27 1⁄8 inches Private Collection

with his new interest in traditional vernacular architecture. He once described the painting as “a composition made up of various places in Salem, Ohio, plus a lot of imagination — so it cannot be said to be of any particular place — just any typical small town.”5 A typical group of old houses and storefronts on a muddy street, perhaps, but they are screened by a dense latticework of tree limbs at top that invokes cubist fracture. At the end of the street, a new moon appears as a reflection in a still pond, while the schematic trees that surround it extend the foreground motifs into the distance. The next year brought momentous changes to Burchfield’s personal life. In the early spring of 1921, he lost his job at the H.M. Mullins Company and could not find another in Salem. He had also fallen in love with Bertha Kenreich and wanted to marry her. With the help of the dean of the Cleveland School of Art, he submitted some of his more decorative artworks to H. M. Birge and Sons, a prominent wallpaper company in Buffalo, New York. He was hired as an assistant designer and moved to Buffalo in the late fall. A few years later, after settling in the village of Gardenville, near Buffalo, Burchfield often painted in his backyard and the surrounding neighborhood. One of his favorite subjects was his own home. Tile Roof of 1930 – 43 [pp. 46/47] is a view of his house and studio, with a neighbor’s sunlit roof bridging the gap between them. The angular forms of the three structures creates an interlocking pattern of walls, roofs, and windows that extends across the center of the composition. At the same time, contrasting values of light and dark create strong visual effects on the buildings as well as the flowerbed, bushes, and wispy trees in the yard. The viewer can almost feel the bright sunlight at midday, and imagine shadows moving across the yard as clouds like the one at top center pass in front of the sun. Around the time that he completed the final version of Tile Roof in the early 1940s, Burchfield was shifting to a bolder, more active


Sunlight in Park, 1917 Watercolor, gouache, and charcoal on paper 17 x 22 inches Private Collection



Two Houses, 1918 Watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper 211⁄2 x 17 1⁄2 inches Private Collection (overleaf, detail)

approach that was initially inspired by what he called “reconstructions” or “two-period pictures.” These were composites of smaller, early works mainly from 1917 and 1918, which he enlarged with strips of paper to create grander, more complex compositions. From there, he began to paint more from recollection and imagination, working in a more spontaneous way that maximized his command of his medium and his many years of experience. Much of his later work reveals two complementary sides of his artistic personality— from exuberant views of energized, sunlit fields and atmospheric skies, to more introspective meditations on the profound depths of nature. During the last five years of his life, Burchfield’s paintings were increasingly dreamlike. In Moonlight in a Flower Garden of 1961 [p. 59], he envisioned a nocturnal world animated by the effects of a multicolored, haloed moon that illuminates a pale sky with its radiating light. Above it, two colorful moths hang on a band of green and yellow plant forms that echo the shapes of their wings. Across the bottom-half of the painting, an energized flower garden is mysteriously attuned to the moonlight. Trees and bushes vibrate in response to the diffuse glow emanating from above, while closest to the viewer, many of the flowers have an almost anthropomorphic quality. A few years later, around, 1965, he painted White Picket Fence [p. 69], a wild, yet familiar, landscape crowned by a transcendent sun. Behind a picket fence, emblematic of settled, domesticated life, a tree surrounded by a mass of vegetation stands above an overgrown field radiating energy. A flock of schematic birds streams by. Their flattened, almost ritualistic depictions project a primeval feel—ancient remnants linking the past with the present—as the viewer stands behind a fence that barely separates him or her from the untamed, instinctual aspects of nature, as a glowing sun fills the sky with a diffuse spirituality.



The Window by the Alley, 1917 Watercolor, crayon, and pencil on paper 18 x 21 7⁄8 inches


Bloodroot (Black Ravine), 1917 Gouache, watercolor, and pencil on paper 211⁄4 x 18 1⁄8 inches


Noon, 1917 Watercolor and gouache on paper 15 1⁄2 x 13 1⁄2 inches

Taken together, the works in this exhibition show the breadth of Burchfield’s artistic vision. A keen observer, he found evidence of the divine in the natural world around him. He liked nothing more than taking sketching trips into the countryside near Buffalo. Throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s, he would pack his car, drive to one of his favorite sites, set up his easel, and start to work. He usually chose a spot overlooking a field, a grove of trees, or some other landscape feature that intrigued him. Charles Burchfield saw the universal in the particular, and nothing was too large or too small to capture his attention. In both his life and art, he felt strongly that his identity was bound up with his relation to nature. “I feel impelled to embrace the earth,” he wrote in one of his journals. On another day spent in the fields and woods, he found that, “My spirit was in complete harmony with the world of nature and absorbed every sight and sound with a completeness that has not been my lot for many a month.”6 RALPH SESSIONS

NOTES 1. Letter to Frank K. M. Rehn, October 2, 1940; quoted in John I. H. Baur, The Inlander: Life and Work of Charles Burchfield, 1893 –1967 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982, 1984), p. 152. 2. Charles Burchfield, “Fifty Years as a Painter,”

His Golden Year: A Retrospective Exhibition of Watercolors, Oils and Graphics by Charles E. Burchfield (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1965), p. 17.


3.“Fifty Years as a Painter,” p. 20. 4. Charles Burchfield, “On the Middle Border,”

Creative Arts 3 (September 1928): p. xxx. 5. Letter from Charles Burchfield to Mortimer

Spiller, April 23, 1966. 6. Charles Burchfield, Journal entries, August 2,

1932 and June 18, 1941; quoted in Baur, p. 178.


The Builders (House Wreckers in June), 1931 Watercolor and charcoal on paper 22 x 30 1â „8 inches


Gray House, c. 1920 Watercolor and pencil on paper 111â „2 x 17 1â „2 inches


Industrial Kilns, c. 1920 Watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper 16 x 24 3â „4 inches


Night, c. 1920 Watercolor on paper 22 1â „4 x 30 1â „2 inches



Wind, c. 1920 Watercolor on paper 18 3⁄4 x 23 7⁄8 inches

Jaws of the World, 1920

Watercolor, gouache, pencil, chalk, and charcoal on paper 29 5⁄8 x 29 1⁄2 inches (overleaf, detail)



Summer, 1920 Watercolor, gouache, and charcoal on paper 25 x 29 inches


Birds Over Field, c. 1920 Watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper 28 x 40 inches


Along the Fence in July, 1939 Watercolor on paper 14 x 18 inches


The Great Hill, 1939 Watercolor, gouach, charcoal, and chalk on paper 24 1⁄2 x 371⁄4 inches


(overleaf ) Tile Roof, 1930–43 Watercolor, gouache, and charcoal on paper, 24 3⁄8 x 35 7⁄8 inches

Pear Tree in September, 1949 Watercolor and charcoal on paper, 22 1â „2 x 311â „4 inches Private Collection


October Sunlight, 1950

Watercolor and charcoal on paper 14 x 22 1â „2 inches Portland Museum of Art, Maine


Pine Tree and Star, 1960

Charcoal on paper, 19 3⁄8 x 13 1⁄2 inches

November Sun Emerging, 1956–59 Watercolor, charcoal, and chalk on paper 37 3⁄4 x 31 7⁄8 inches (overleaf, detail)


Wind, c. 1960 Ink and charcoal on paper 26 x 40 inches


The Spirit of Winter Lurking In A Woods, c. 1960 Ink and charcoal on paper 26 x 39 1â „2 inches


The Butterfly Tree, 1960

Watercolor on paper 15 x 19 inches Private Collection


Leaves, A Hot Red, c. 1960 Ink and charcoal on paper 26 x 39 7â „8 inches

Moonlight in a Flower Garden, 1961

Watercolor and charcoal on paper 48 x 30 inches (overleaf, detail)



Goldenrod and Milkweed in December, 1962 Watercolor and conte crayon on paper 13 1â „2 x 11 1â „2 inches; Private Collection


Heat Lightning (also known as Landscape with Gray Clouds), c. 1962 Watercolor, charcoal, and white chalk on paper 58 x 45 inches

Dawn in Early Spring, 1946–66 Watercolor, charcoal, and chalk on paper 47 x 53 1⠄2 inches Private Collection (overleaf, detail)



White Picket Fence, c. 1965 Watercolor, charcoal, and chalk on paper 53 x 40 inches (overleaf, detail)



Charles and Bertha Burchfield, c.1960s Gelatin silver print with hand-applied text 6 3⁄4 x 9 3⁄4 inches


C HAR L E S BUR C HF IELD The Nature of Seeing

May 1 – June 13, 2015 D C



535 West 22 nd Street New York, New York, 10011 212 . 247 . 21i1

Charles Burchfield: The Nature of Seeing  

May 1 - June 13, 2015. Exhibition catalogue.

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