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Charles Burchfield

1893–1967

about this artist

Charles Burchfield grew up in a small town in Ohio and studied at the Cleveland School of Art. He spent most of his life as an “inlander,” living in Salem, Ohio, and Buffalo, New York, far from the East Coast art world. Early in his development as an artist, Burchfield experimented with different styles, including everyday scenes and industrial subjects. He worked mainly in watercolor, developing a signature technique with heavy, overlapping strokes of color. Like the Hudson River School painters before him, Burchfield found spiritual meaning in nature, and by the late 1910s, he began painting visionary, deeply individualistic landscapes.

In 1921, Burchfield and his wife moved to Gardenville, outside Buffalo, where he worked as a wallpaper designer before quitting in 1929 to concentrate on his art. In the years that followed, Burchfield’s stark images of small towns and industrial landscapes earned him renown as part of the American Scene movement, together with his close friend Edward Hopper. In 1943, as he was turning fifty and as World War II was intensifying, Burchfield went through an artistic crisis, unsure of how to develop his work. He started experimenting with the lyrical, expressionistic watercolors that he had made decades earlier, enlarging them by adding pieces of paper where he felt he needed more space for an image and cutting away parts that he thought were no longer necessary. In this way, the smaller works became large watercolors that more fully expressed the beauty and spirit of nature as he saw it.

Burchfield used nature as a vehicle for expressing his inner life—his dreams, fears, fantasies, and regressions. He greatly admired the work of Flemish artist Peter Brueghel, the Italian masters, and the landscapes of French artist Gustave Courbet, traditional Chinese landscape painting, and the writings of the naturalists Henry David Thoreau and John Burroughs. In his middle age, Burchfield began suffering from lumbago brought about by his habit of painting outdoors in difficult conditions. He worked vigorously right up until the day he died of a heart attack in 1967, shortly after the opening of his eighteenth solo exhibition at the Rehn Gallery in New York. The New York Times reviewer said of that show that Burchfield “has never painted with a surer touch or a more delicate one. He has never caught us up more effectively into his poetic vision of sunlight (or moonlight), skies, wind and flowers (or winter trees).”

Patterson Sims. Charles Burchfield: A Concentration of Works from the Permanent Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980), 5.