One of the most original American artists of the twentieth century, Charles Ephraim Burchfield was a master of the watercolor medium. His work encompassed emotionally charged landscapes—joyful, brooding and often fantastic—and closely observed American Scene paintings of life in western New York.
Born April 9, 1893, at Ashtabula, Ohio, Charles Ephraim Burchfield spent his childhood entirely in the Midwest. As an adult, he referred to himself as an “inlander,” in that he never desired to see or to paint the sea. Following the death of his father, which occurred when Burchfield was four years old, the family moved to Salem, Ohio. Their house was at the edge of town, a short distance away from meadows and woods where Burchfield spent many solitary hours exploring and sketching.
In 1912 he entered the Cleveland School of Art. He was attracted to the art of design his first year there and some of his earliest surviving sketches from this period have a flat, decorative quality, which prepared him well for the work as a wallpaper designer he would take on in the 1920s.
Burchfield considered the year 1915 to be the beginning of his career. Still in school, he began to put down on paper abstractions of natural forces such as the sun, wind, rain, and storm in a flat, boldly patterned style. For the next six years he used watercolor to capture childhood memories and give pictorial form to recollected fears, dreams, and fantasies.
In June 1916 he returned to Salem, but soon left for New York after winning a scholarship from the Cleveland School of Art to study at the National Academy of Design. Burchfield hated the Academy, particularly the life class. True to his early aversion, Burchfield almost never painted the figure. He longed to return home, and one of the few bright spots in his brief months in New York was meeting Mary Mowbray-Clark. She showed his work in her gallery, the Sunwise Turn Bookshop, and effectively launched Burchfield’s career as an artist. During his training in Cleveland, Burchfield became familiar with the teachings of influential American printmaker and art educator Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), who asserted that the harmonious arrangement of line, color, and notan (tonal contrasts), rather than the copying of nature, was the fundamental basis of art. Rooted in Dow’s belief in the expressive potential of decorative design and pattern, Burchfield’s imagery often consisted of a repetition of motifs.
In 1921, around the time of his marriage to Bertha Kenreich, Burchfield moved from Salem to Buffalo, New York, to work as a designer for the wallpaper company M. H. Birge and Sons. Here and especially after his 1925 move to Gardenville, a Buffalo suburb, his work became more realistic. He painted city buildings, viaducts, and elevated railways and his and his neighbors’ backyards.
In 1929 he quit his job with Birge and Sons to paint full time, continuing in the vein he had started after settling in Buffalo. But by 1943 Burchfield felt that his art lacked the emotive, magical power of his early work. In some instances he enlarged papers painted before 1921 by adding strips of paper to the margins. He worked on a large scale, taking watercolor from a minor to a major art form while combining the emotive power of papers done in 1917 and 1918 with the realism of the intervening two decades. These experiments with enlarging paved the way for his expressionist work of the 1950s and 60s.
In September 1944 Burchfield wrote to his dealer Frank Rehn, “I feel happier than I have felt for years” and promised to paint more sounds, dreams, and smells. However, these works of pure fantasy were received dubiously by Rehn and some patrons, so in 1947 Burchfield returned temporarily to the broad monumental handling of his middle period. From this year date his last paintings in which houses figure as subjects, notably Lavender and Old Lace (1939–1947) in the collection of the National Museum of American Art and Street Scene (1940–1947) owned by the Dallas Museum of Art.
Money was a concern for the Burchfield family until the one-man show of his work arranged by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1956. To address this, Burchfield taught—begrudgingly and only because he was compelled to for financial reasons. He took his first teaching job in the summer of 1945 at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Between 1949 and 1952 he taught at the Art Institute of Buffalo, which he at first enjoyed, but when enrollment surpassed forty students, he began to long for the privacy of his studio.
In his later years, Burchfield was the recipient of many honors, including the Dawson Memorial Medal from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1947, honorary degrees from Harvard College and Hamilton College, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1958, followed by that organization’s Gold Medal in 1959. Burchfield died at West Seneca, New York, on January 10, 1967.
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