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 Charles Ephraim Burchfield  (1893 - 1967)

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Lived/Active: New York/Ohio      Known for: landscape-structure and modernist botanic painting

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Charles Ephraim Burchfield
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, Charles Burchfield became known as a town-landscape painter of middle-western America, and his paintings have had much influence on succeeding generations of artists.  He has also been described as a social critic, naturalist, and transcendental visionary whose sensitivities infuse his artwork. Of his impact on American art, Matthew Baigell wrote: "Few American artists have ever responded with such passion to the landscape or have made it such a compelling repository as well as mirror of their intimate feelings." (55)

In addition to his painting, Burchfield was a teacher at the Art Institute of Buffalo from 1949 to 1952 and at the University of Buffalo from 1950 to 1952.

Burchfield's career can be divided into three phases.  The first is landscapes based on childhood memories and fantasies and ended about 1918; the second from 1918 to 1943, is Social Realism including "grimy streets and rundown buildings of the eastern Ohio area", and the third phase is a return to subject matter of his childhood and the "investing them with a kind of ecstatic poetry." (Biagell 54)

Throughout his career, watercolor was his preferred medium.  Knowledge of Oriental art influenced him to use simple forms.

He spent his youth in Salem, Ohio where he developed a keen interest in art and nature and was intensely aware of woodland sounds and noises.  In 1912, he decided to become a painter and enrolled in the Cleveland School of Art where his most influential teacher was Henry Keller.  Another major Ohio influence on his painting was William Sommer, leader of the modernist movement in the Cleveland area.  He introduced Burchfield to experimental watercolor techniques and color theory, and Burchfield began attending sessions of the Kokoon Club, organized by Sommer and William Zorach to promote avant-garde art.  In 1917, he developed a shorthand of abstractions of various shapes and moods, and he also began painting small houses that appeared to be haunted.

He served in World War I from 1918 to 1919, and served as sergeant in the Camouflage Corps, camouflaging artillery pieces.  In 1921, he moved to Buffalo, New York where until 1929, he worked as a wallpaper designer for the M.H. Birge and Sons Wallpaper Company.  From that time, living the remainder of his life in Buffalo, he devoted himself full time to fine-art painting that ranged from rather sentimental depictions to abstraction in the 1960s.  In the 1920s, he moved away from what he perceived as an overactive imagination and did studies of architecture of Midwestern streets.  This subject matter of the realities of the man-made world was influenced by his reading of Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, and playing off those themes he reflected a debunking of the heartland sentimentality by so-called sophisticated, more worldly critics.  Then in 1943, he returned to his earlier style which he explained was a "necessary diversion" from the aftermath of World War II.

Once more he began to explore the landscape of his youth, and using a less-realistic style, became almost mystical in his expressions of nature including seasonal changes, and forest sounds, which he depicted with quivering brushstrokes. "His last paintings are filled with chimerical creatures--butterflies and dragonflies from another world." (Baigell 55)

The largest single collection of his work is at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York and includes his watercolors, prints, oil paintings, and preliminary sketches for both paintings and wallpaper designs.  In 1997, a major retrospective of his work was held at the National Museum of American Art in Washington DC and was organized by the Columbus Ohio Museum of Art.

 
Sources:
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art
Roy H. Behrens, Camoupedia, A Compendium on Art, Architecture and Camouflage

This biography from the Archives of AskART:

The following was written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California:


Charles E. Burchfield was born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio on April 9,1893.  He was a shy and somewhat lonely youngster and he spent long hours exploring the nearby woods.  He was known to paint in the pouring rain; his perseverance paid off in some of the most unusual nature paintings in American art.  Toward the end of high school he started writing in a journal, which he kept up regularly for the next fifty years.  By the time he died, the journal filled seventy-two volumes.    After graduating from high school, Burchfield studied at the Cleveland School of Art. There, it was not the modernistic battles raging in Paris or at New York's Armory Show that influenced him, but Chinese scrolls and Japanese prints.   

After graduating from Cleveland, Burchfield went to New York City, where he received a scholarship to the National Academy of Design.  But he was miserable there, and within two months he returned to Salem where, except for a brief stint in the Army, he lived with his mother for the next five years.  He returned immediately to his regular job when he got home but working five days a week and Saturday mornings did not leave him much time to paint.   

Burchfield had lived from 1898 to 1921 in Salem, Ohio.  At the age of twenty-four he experienced what he would later call his "golden year." It was 1917, during which he produced watercolors at a rate of two or three a week in an explosion of talent.   

Burchfield's Salem period came to an end in 1921 when, at age twenty-eight, he moved to Buffalo, New York to take a job designing wallpaper for M.H.Birge and Sons.  He married Bertha Kenreich; they raised four girls and a boy.  The family lived in a modest house in Gardenville, directly east of Buffalo.  In a deep back lot was a garden and a small studio where Burchfield worked.  After eight years, he left Birge to devote all his time to making his work larger, grander and more realistic.  His struggle to express his intense response to nature with his personal symbolic vocabulary continued until his death in 1967. 

Sources include:   
Henry Adams in Smithsonian Magazine   
Time magazine, June 15, 1970   
The Last Pantheist by Bonnie Barrett Stretch in ARTnews, May 1984


Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, A-D):
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.

Biography from Anderson Galleries:
Charles Ephraim Burchfield (April 9, 1893 - January 10, 1967), an American watercolor painter, was born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio.  He is known for his visual commentaries on the effects of Industrialism on small town America as well as for his paintings of nature. His paintings are in the collections of many major museums in the USA and have been the subject of exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art as well as other prominent institutions.
Contents

Burchfield was raised by his mother in Salem, Ohio. Most of his early works were done at this house, where he lived from the ages of five to twenty-eight, and which has since been converted into a museum. He graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1916. Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York in 1921, where he was employed as a designer at the Birge wallpaper company.

In 1925, Burchfield moved from Buffalo to the adjacent suburb of West Seneca, New York, spending the rest of his life in the rural neighborhood of Gardenville.

According to Burchfield's friend and colleague Edward Hopper, "The work of Charles Burchfield is most decidedly founded, not on art, but on life, and the life that he knows and loves best."

His work is usually divided into three periods. The highly original early work, from 1915 until 1919, combined an almost fauvist use of color with experiments involving the depiction of the sounds of nature mixed with personal moods. He developed a personal shorthand calligraphy for sounds (typically insects and frogs) and abstractions depicting moods (frequently morbid). Cicada sounds are depicted with zigzag strokes radiating outward, and flowers and houses seem to have faces, not always pleasant.

In his middle period, from 1919 until 1943, he depicted small-town and industrial scenes that put him vaguely in the category of the American Scene or Regionalist movement, and these are the paintings most often seen in art history texts. Though one critic commented that he was "merely Edward Hopper on a rainy day," a 1936 Life Magazine article named him as one of America's ten greatest painters.

In his late period, from 1943 until his death in 1967, he returned to the preoccupations of the early work, developing large, intense renditions of nature captured in swirling strokes, heightened colors and exaggerated forms. Art historian and critic John Canaday predicted in a 1966 New York Times review that the grandeur and power of these pictures would be Burchfield's enduring achievement.

The Charles Burchfield Center at Buffalo State College was dedicated in his honor in 1966. It was re-named The Burchfield Art Center in 1983 with an expanded mission to support a multi-arts focus. Between 1991 and 1994, the museum received a series of gifts from Charles Rand Penney, Ph. D., of more than 1,300 works by Western New York artists. Included in that gift were 183 works by Charles E. Burchfield. In honor of such a substantial donation the museum was again re-named as The Burchfield-Penney Art Center.

Museum Collections
* Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
* Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
* Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio
* Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio
* Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
* Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York
* Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
* Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
Charles Burchfield grew up in the small working class town of Salem, Ohio. From an early age, he was very interested in nature and particularly sensitive to its spiritual qualities. He began painting with watercolors as a child, and continued with the medium for the duration of his career. Following high school graduation Burchfield enrolled in the Cleveland School of Art where Henry G. Keller taught him the basic principles of art and the importance of composition. In 1917, Burchfield began the first of three distinct stylistic periods. This first period can be classified as fanciful and sentimental, and included scenes from his childhood and from nature. Burchfield often referred to 1917 as his "golden year" during which he painted prolifically, producing almost half of his entire oeuvre.

This phase in his career ended when he was drafted into the United States Army in July of 1918. Burchfield was stationed at Camp Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, initially with the field artillery unit, and later with the camouflage painting section. Over the next two years, Burchfield painted images of military life at Camp Jackson, and explored the surrounding areas which inspired several genre scenes. The three Burchfield works in this collection are from this brief period of military service in the South. The images are not as whimsical as many of his earlier works, but they do show the freedom of form that Burchfield applied to his compositions.

In 1921, Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York and worked as a designer for a prominent wallpaper company. The following year he married and eventually raised five children. Influenced by the urban Buffalo landscape, he focused his paintings on scenes of urban life, rather than on the mysteries of nature. In this second stylistic period, Burchfield explored the “hardness of human lives” and continued to depict socially conscious urban settings over the next two decades. In 1929, Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries in New York City began to represent Burchfield, allowing him to resign from his job as a wallpaper pattern designer and paint full time.

In the 1940s, Burchfield returned to the more fantastical style of his earlier work. Though nature was the subject, Burchfield did not only paint what was visible to the eye. He said, "An artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him." He worked within this vision throughout the rest of his career.

In 1956, the Whitney Museum held a retrospective honoring Burchfield’s career. However, he continued to paint for another decade and received some of his best reviews for this later work. In 1966, Buffalo State College opened the Charles Burchfield Center (now known as the Burchfield Penney Art Center) to promote the arts in Western New York. Charles Burchfield passed away from a heart attack in January 1967.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina


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