This month, we bring you the paintings of Charles Burchfield, an American watercolorist renowned for his romantic yet spooky portrayals of nature. Burchfield’s art captures the fall mood very well, which makes looking at his paintings perfect for this time of year. He paints nature’s transitions to cooler weather, and captures the gloomy yet beautiful character of this darker climate – all very appropriate for fall in Durham!
Burchfield was an introvert. Like many other great artists, he spent more time inside his head than engaging with people. Friends and acquaintances described him as “painfully shy,” and barely able to hold a conversation. They complained that Burchfield seemed to run off in the woods to paint at any chance he got.
The artist was well aware of his reclusiveness. “I walk in a maze of dream worlds, oblivious to all beings and things,” he writes in his journal, in 1917. And “I have never learned to talk and have only listened to trees.”
Burchfield’s entire senses and energies were focused on the natural world. He was very attentive to its smells, colors, sounds, moods, and transitions. Nature completely mesmerized him, and he shared his feelings with viewers through his paintings, which are renowned for being “experiential” – that is, they evoke from us feelings and emotions.
“One of the supremely happy moments of my whole life was when I stood in the woods and listened to the wind roaring in the tree tops.”
“May I never grow too old to enjoy storm and violence.”
“I’m going to give you more sounds and dreams, and – yes, I’m going to make people smell what I want them to, and with visual means.”
Quotes like these give us a little idea of the intense sensations he felt in response to nature, desperate to put them on canvas and share with (or rather impose on) his viewers. So, while he may have lived a lonely life on the exterior, Burchfield’s inner world was filled with forceful emotion, excitement, and magic, of an intensity that is hard for us to imagine.
And his paintings are a reflection of this inner world. On one hand, his style is funky and hallucinogenic, trying to avoid realism at all cost. Everything is enhanced: insects and flowers are much larger than their realistic proportions; we can almost feel and smell the summer heat, the autumn chill, and the dampness before the rain. Some of his paintings even depict sound, like the circles symbolizing the songs of birds in Autumnal Fantasy, and the jagged, moving chords in Song of the Telegraph.
Song of the Telegraph, 1917
34 x 53″ – Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries, New York, NY
Of this picture, Burchfield writes “There are few sounds that are as wild and elemental as this music of the telegraph wires, that stir the blood as much, and fill the listener, boy or man, with such vague but intense yearning for he knows not what.”
Funnily, after seeing Autumnal Fantasy, Burchfield’s art dealer remarked that “People will ask you if you cut off your ear after painting that.” Of course, the dealer was referring to Vincent Van Gogh, famously known for being an “insane” artist and a tortured soul, who cut the lobe of his ear in a fit of madness (which he then sent, in a box, to a woman that he was seeing). Ironically, Burchfield did not look like the stereotypical artist. He was neither crazy, nor melancholic; instead, he seemed rather businesslike. His contemporaries claimed that he looked more natural in a suit, sitting at his desk (he worked at a wallpaper company for nine years), as opposed to when he sat uncomfortably at his easel. His paintings, however, are as wild as it gets.
“It is late Sunday afternoon in August, the child stands alone in the garden listening to the metallic sounds of insects; they are all his world, so to his mind all things become saturated with their presence – crickets lurk in the depths of the grass, the shadows of trees conceal fantastic creatures, and the boy looks with fear at the black interior of the arbor, not knowing what terrible thing might be there.”
On the other hand, there is something gloomy and macabre about his style. His paintings are colorful yet sombre. Burchfield paints a perpetual state of twilight, and mixes beautiful curves with jagged edges. To this, he adds dark, disturbing niches, which serve as hiding places for the frightful creatures of our imagination (like in The Insect Chorus and Garden of Memories). Sometimes a few pairs of eyes lurk in the shadows, behind some shrubs. The sky in his paintings is never clear. Instead the clouds – often in the shape of crows (like in Song of the Telegraph) or other strange forms – are encroaching onto the landscape, giving the viewer a suffocating feel. His paintings are funky yet gloomy… and always very beautiful. This is a rare combination, which makes Burchfield one of the most unique nature painters in the United States.
“Crabbed old age sits in front of her black doorway, without hope for the future, brooding. Spiders lurk in dark corners; the dying plants reflect her mood. The romantic autumn moon rises just the same.”
But before we label him a “genius” and attribute his success to natural talent only, it is important to mention that Burchfield also worked very, very hard. In 1917, when he was 24, he managed to produce several works while working full time at the W. H. Mullins Company in Salem, Ohio. He describes his schedule in a journal entry:
“I had 1½ hours for lunch, I allowed ½ hour to walk to and from the office, 15 minutes to eat, which left 45 minutes to do a quick sketch […] Often at night I had to bathe my eyes in cold water to keep awake. There was so much to say and so little time.”
It is this combination of passion, introspection, and hard work that led Burchfield to be a very successful artist, albeit somewhat under-recognized. It is no doubt this incredible work ethic that helped Burchfield earn his living as an artist in the United States, managing to sell his work even during the Great Depression!
As for the beginner artist, Burchfield has the following advice: “My advice to all young artists is ‘Never destroy anything, no matter how trivial or lousy you think it is.’” I wonder if this also applies to writing.
References – for more information on Charles Burchfield
Baur, J. I. H. (1956). Charles Burchfield. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Baur, J. I. H. (1982). The Inlander: Life and Work of Charles Burchfield, 1893-1967. Newark: University of Delaware Press.
Charles Burchfield: Catalogue of Paintings in Public and Private Collections. (1970). Utica, NY: Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute.
Charles Burchfield: Early Watercolors 1916 to 1918. (1930). New York: Museum of Modern Art.
Charles Burchfield: Watercolors 1915-1920. (1990). New York: Kennedy Galleries.
Maciejunes, N. V. & M. D. Hall. (1997). The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Makowski, C. L. (1996). Charles Burchfield: An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
Burchfield Penney Art Center: http://www.burchfieldpenney.org
Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, Art Babble: http://www.artbabble.org/video/hammer/heat-waves-swamp-paintings-charles-burchfield
Charles Burchfield at the Whitney Museum, Curated by Robert Gober:
Oral history interview with Charles Burchfield, 1959 Aug. 19: