- 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
The fantasies that resulted from this pantheistic fervor met with a mixed reception; sales fluctuated from year to year, and Burchfield was constantly plagued by both artistic and financial doubts. As late as 1949 he could write in his journal, “How we will live I do not know.”
But in the 1940s honors began to come his way with greater frequency: retrospectives at major museums; various gold medals; election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters; an honorary degree from Harvard. A comprehensive exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1956, followed by a national tour, solidified his fame and put an end to his financial worries.
By then, however, his health had begun to deteriorate. In his later years, plagued by heart ailments, Burchfield painted a series of wonderfully vigorous watercolors, nostalgic, dreamlike, and arresting in their radical distortions of visual reality. Working from memory and imagination, the artist brought to his last works a new freedom and spontaneity. Entire pictures became masses of quivering brushstrokes, and forms haloed in yellow shone with an otherworldly brilliance. The art historian Matthew Baigell has called these paintings “some of the finest celebrations of landscape moods ever done by an American artist.”
At the age of seventy-three, while eating lunch with Bertha in a restaurant near their home, Charles Burchfield had a fatal heart attack. Not so very long before, he had lain in bed listening to the rain. “I fell to thinking as I often do of late, about Heaven and its character…. Like Corot, I hope there will be painting there, but somehow it doesn’t seem logical.” But perhaps that didn’t really matter so much; perhaps, in the unremarkable meadows outside Buffalo, New York, he had already been there. “It is impossible for me to imagine anything better or more beautiful than this world.”