- 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
In the spring of 1919 a Cleveland bookstore owner gave the young artist a copy of a new novel that for a time changed the current of his work: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio . The unsparing exposition of life in a small Midwestern town engaged Burchfield’s imagination, and Anderson’s later book Hello Towns! helped confirm Burchfield’s view that buildings have personalities and moods. “The houses have faces,” Anderson wrote. “The windows are eyes. Some houses smile at you; others frown. … Sometime the secrets hidden away behind the walls of houses are merely sad, but sometimes they are exciting.”
Burchfield began seeking those moods and personalities, sketching streets, houses, and factories of the Ohio River Valley, bringing a bleak poetry to the stark architecture of played-out canal towns.
“Somehow,” he wrote, “after you live in a place for a certain length of time, things and places begin to belong to you.” Soon Buffalo began to belong to him too.
In 1921, having lost his job at Mullins, he found work on a farm, where he met and became engaged to the owner’s daughter, Bertha Kcnreich. They married the next year and moved to Buffalo, where Burchfield had been hired as a wallpaper designer by M. H. Birge and Sons. A couple of years later the Burchfields settled in a small two-story frame house in Gardenville, just outside the city. There they lived for the rest of their lives, raising five children, while Burchficld painted in a little back-yard studio.
“I don’t believe there are many more banal and flat places than this village,” he wrote, “and yet somehow after you live in a place for a certain length of time, things and places begin to belong to you.” Soon Buffalo began to belong to him too, as he found himself increasingly drawn to the city’s industrial reaches, finding a strong, desolate beauty in the “crude manufacturing shapes” and “drinking in through my eyes the soot-and-smoke-blackened surfaces, the coal-dust filmed earth, the gleaming rails …”
He had begun yearning more and more for “those rapturous, headlong days of 1916 and 1917.” Eventually he found a way back.
By 1929 work at the wallpaper factory had become oppressive, draining time and energy Burchfield longed to devote to his painting. That summer, with his wife’s encouragement, he quit Birge, signed on with Frank Rehn, a leading contemporary art dealer in Manhattan, and became a full-time painter. He was thirty-six years old.
During the next decade and a half, Burchfield fought through bouts of depression to depict the squalor and grandeur of his adopted city. Austere and haunting, the potent Buffalo watercolors have the size, weight, and substance of oil paintings. “He made watercolor,” writes John Baur, ”… a major vehicle of expression, capable of as much variety as any other medium.” Moreover, “in their starkness, their simplicity, these pictures brought Burchfield as close as he would ever come to the Homer-Eakins-Hopper line of American realism.”
The somber celebrations of Buffalo and the Ohio River Valley gave a powerful boost to Burchfield’s career, but one aspect of the surge of interest in his work troubled him. He found himself being regularly identified as a regionalist and linked to the American Scene group led by Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood. He wrote Rehn that he preferred to see himself as “an American artist … an artist who happens to be born, living, painting America…. ‘Regionalism’—it makes me sick.”
Buffalo was apparently beginning to make him a bit sick too. More and more he found himself yearning for “those rapturous, headlong days of 1916 and 1917.” In the end he found a way back, and the bridge turned out to be a return to the paintings of his youth. Beginning in 1943, he took watercolors done thirty years before and incorporated them into larger works by adding extended compositions to strips of paper pasted around the edges of the original pictures. Thus he was able to return to the nature imagery and abstract style of decades earlier and thence to produce the monumental visionary pictures of his final years.
During his final years, working from memory and imagination, Burchfield brought to his last paintings a new freedom and spontaneity.
At the urging of his wife, the painter became a Lutheran in the 1940s, but he always felt unsure about formal religion. Nevertheless it was something very like religion that drew him away from the industrial sidings of Buffalo as a subject and toward increasingly abstract and radiant views of nature. “Above all,” writes Baur, “nature became to Burchfield a refuge, a source of peace, a deeply religious experience. Painting beneath a broiling sun, the sweat pouring down face and arms, pestered by stinging flies, he would suddenly have the sense of a divine moment and his heart would sing for joy…. In a letter to Rehn, he rejected pantheism- ‘God is in His creation but separate from it’—in fact, however, he came very close to it.”