Open Canon: Charles Burchfield
by John McMahon. The Romantic Realist, little remembered today, had a unique approach to watercolor landscape painting.
The painter Charles Burchfield (1893-1962) spent most of his life working in the eastern Great Lakes region of the United States. He lived quietly, observing nature, marveling at the industry that built up around the countryside, and striving for a balance between the two in the vibrant, emotional watercolors he painted for fifty years. He worked in a kind of seclusion, and though he may be little remembered today, his art pushed the boundaries of modern landscape painting during what many would consider the golden age of American painting.
Burchfield was born on a farm just outside of Cleveland in Salem, Ohio in 1893. As a child, Charles studied at the local Salem school and worked on his father's farm. He also had a keen interest in reading at a young age. His love of nature led him to the late nineteenth-century naturalists like David Henry Thoreau, and he began to sketch during his long solitary walks around the countryside.
In 1912 he enrolled at the Cleveland School of Art. He studied under the influential Henry Keller who led a generation of Ohio painters to work in his preferred medium of watercolors, one Burchfield never gave up and used throughout his career in ways like none other. In Cleveland Burchfield learned of the artistic movements coming from Europe. He followed his time at school with a year of study in New York City where he met contemporary painters and experienced the influence of modern painting first hand.
After his year in New York City he returned to Salem. He brought back from New York a new aesthetic vocabulary that energized his paintings. He noted in his journal that the “town and countryside where I grew up were now transformed by the magic of an awakened art outlook.” His new work included a sense of rhythmic abstraction in composition perhaps best expressed in Bluebird and Cottonwoods (1917).
He would not stay in Salem long. In 1918 Burchfield enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was assigned to the Camouflage Unit, where he helped to create paint designs for military equipment. He continued to develop his aesthetic sense throughout his service. Fellow artists serving in the same unit turned him on to the social realist school of writers. He absorbed the books of Upton Sinclair, Horatio Alger, and Stephen Crane and studied the work of contemporary painters like George Luks, Robert Henri, and Edward Hopper who would eventually become a personal friend. The very American aesthetic of picturing the working class and the world they lived in began to creep into his own work until eventually machines, building, and industry squeezed out the natural world.
Even as he shifted his focus to the man-made world of buildings and machinery, his was not a cold, objective look at modernity like that of his friend Hopper. His emotional sensitivity was now imbued in the man-made world that crowded his paintings. February Thaw (The Thaw, January Thaw), a piece from early 1920 described by the artist as “ a composition made of various places around Salem, Ohio plus a lot of imagination” depicts a muddy lane on an early spring day. The ice is just pulling back from puddles of water that look menacing, the sagging buildings that line the street seem grumpy, not yet woke from their winter hunker to the warmth of the season. The pedestrians who appear as insignificant smudges still seem bundled against the lingering cold. Even the trees in this piece become almost architectural, in the foreground taking on Cubist formations while in the background they sag like ancient roman arches.
In 1921 Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York to begin a new job as a junior designer at a wallpaper factory. He married his hometown sweetheart Bertha Kenerich and in time they bought a small house and had five children. In Buffalo, he found better representation for his paintings which he worked on early in the morning and during his lunch breaks. Buffalo was a major industrial city at the time and the steel plants, lake ports, train sidings, and factories filled his work with bold, flattened colors, bordering on the abstract in some, on expressionism in others.
In 1928 Burchfield parted ways with Mowbray-Clark, the dealer who had represented him for ten years. The next year Frank Rehm Galleries in New York became his dealer and encouraged Burchfield to leave his job and paint full-time. It was under Rehm’s influence that he began repurposing his older work. By adding strips of paper to enlarge the size of existing paintings he expanded on his earlier celebrations of nature to include a different understanding of the natural world, one heavily influenced by twenty-odd years of focusing on man’s world.
His Dawn in Early Spring (1946-1966), a piece he worked on for twenty years, combines the three phases in which historians normally divide his work. His early work was an exploration and celebration of nature, full of mystery and vibrating with life. His industrial phase found him documenting the spread of man’s creations around him. And his golden era, those years when he came to terms with both worlds, binding them in landscapes where buildings seem to laugh and weep while flowers and trees vibrate with a natural ecstasy.
In Dawn in Early Spring nature comes to life vibrantly, as the last ice of winter seems to almost drip from the painting. Flora erupts against the foreground in color and detail like pastries on a confectioner's sample tray. The watercolor is used almost like oil paint, applied lean to fat giving the painting a weight beyond its medium. Nature has won out, there are no man-made structures in the piece. Yet the saplings at its center arch toward the star pricked night in an aura of morning light creating a steeple with their buttressing limbs. The rising sun casts its first rays through the architectural passages of the bare tree limbs to warm the needles of the evergreens that encircle the center like witnesses to the miracle of another day and a new season.
In this final phase of his work, the forest is at peace again, Burchfield hasn’t come full circle but returned to his natural explorations and celebrations after twenty years of documenting the rise of industry with a changed perspective.
John McMahon is a freelance writer/former art world schmuck who now lives on a beach in Thailand.