- Historic Sites
His contemporaries saw the painter Charles Burchfield as another regionalist. Today it seems clear that the region was the human spirit.
February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
Toward the end of his life, Charles Burchfield wrote a description of a place that had haunted him since he was a schoolboy. It was “some fabulous Northland unlike any place on earth—a land of deep water-filled gashes in the earth; old lichen-covered cliffs and mesas, with black spruce forests reflected in the pools, against which swans gleam miraculously.”
The man who had for half a century both feared and yearned for this far, fantastic country could not have looked less like what he was. In his sixties, says Burchfield’s biographer John I. H. Baur, he reminded one interviewer of a small-town businessman, another of the family doctor. Indeed, he had been a small-town citizen all his life, but in fact the shy sometime cost accountant was one of the most original and passionate of American artists, a man so consumed by the beauty of the physical world that he always saw the mystical vibrating within the mundane and could find in the most ordinary stretch of countryside the vertiginous majesty of his Northland.
“I will always be an inlander in spirit,” Burchfield once wrote. He was also one in reality, never drawn to the sea (“It is not for me, and surely it has a worthy rival in a hay or wheat field on a bright windy day”), and his vision and style were so personal and distinct that the general perception has him existing wholly outside the artistic mainstream of his day.
Now, however, nearly thirty years after his death, a large and ambitious exhibition organized by the Columbus Museum of Art and soon to begin a national tour argues —as the catalogue puts it—that Burchfield was “an insider who was simultaneously an outsider,” a man well informed about art-world trends who sat on painting juries around the country, moved in New York art circles, and knew such famous contemporaries as Edward Hopper. More important, this show may well retrieve Burchfield from the periphery of mid-twentieth-century American art and place him firmly in its front ranks.
Charles Ephraim Burchfield was born in 1893 in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, the son of a tailor and an ex-school-teacher. After his father died, when Charles was four, his nearly penniless mother took her six children back to her native Salem, Ohio, a railroad town of some nine thousand people. Charles was strongly drawn to the surrounding countryside, where he collected polliwogs, minnows, and insects and depicted animals and wildflowers in increasingly accomplished sketches. He also began making the first entries in his journal, a highly detailed and intimate revelation of character that in time would grow to ten thousand pages. “There is nothing in nature that will ever fail to interest me,” he wrote during his senior year of high school.
He compiled a visual vocabulary of emotions—shapes that represented “fear, insanity, morbidness, imbecility…”
As class valedictorian, in 1911, Burchfield delivered an ambitious oration that he titled “The Evolution of Art.” Then he set out to become part of that evolution at the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art). In the fall of 1916, with some misgivings, he accepted a scholarship to New York’s prestigious National Academy of Design. He quit at the end of the first day, and after a brief, unhappy time spent wandering around Manhattan he traveled back to Salem and a job in the cost department of the W. H. Mullins Company, a metal fabricating plant where he had worked on and off since high school days.
Worried that he had already lost his chance to become an artist, he one day set out on a walk in the wintry countryside. “One of the supremely happy moments of my whole life,” he recalled, “was when I stood in the woods and listened to the wind roaring in the tree tops. After New York it seemed to me the most wonderful music I ever heard.”
That music didn’t leave him. The following twelve months were, for the twenty-four-year-old artist, the momentous “golden year” of his life. Despite the demands of his accounting work, he produced some two hundred paintings, fluid and often writhing, in which he said he was seeking to find means to express moods on paper—particularly childhood moods—and to visualize sounds. He set about filling a sketchbook labeled “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts,” in which he compiled a visual vocabulary of emotions—shapes that represented “fear, insanity, morbidness, imbecility, melancholy and meditation.”
Many of these motifs were woven into Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night , which he finished toward the end of 1917. “It was an attempt to express a childhood emotion,” he said, “—the churchbell is ringing and it terrifies me (the child)—the bell ringing motive reaches out and saturates the rainy sky—the roofs of the houses dripping with rain are influenced; the child attempts to be comforted by the thoughts of candle lights and Christmas trees, but the fear of the black, rainy night is overpowering.” Church Bells is his first great work.