February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
His contemporaries saw the painter Charles Burchfield as another regionalist. Today it seems clear that the region was the human spirit.
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.
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.
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.
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 …”
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.
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.”
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.”