Charles Burchfield was a singular and enigmatic artist who came to symbolize the spirit of rural America in a time of interest in regional American styles. Having grown up in a small town, Burchfield was unaffected by contemporary European or American art movements, and was only loosely influenced by Chinese and Japanese prints. As such, he developed a style entirely his own, one of intense personal and powerful expression. For Burchfield, art was a means of communicating his emotions elicited through interaction with the environment.
Burchfield was born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, and grew up in nearby Salem. Lacking the wanderlust so characteristic of contemporary American artists, Burchfield rarely strayed from home, preferring his small town environs to heavily populated metropolitan centers. He made few major departures in his entire life. He moved to Cleveland for schooling from 1912 to 1916. In October 1916, following his graduation from the Cleveland School of Art, Burchfield left for New York to study at the National Academy of Design. For Burchfield, conditions in New York City were totally antithetical to the type of rural lifestyle he had come to idealize. He attended only one day of classes at the Academy, and, one month after arriving in New York, he returned home to Salem. Burchfield remained there until 1921, when he moved to Buffalo, New York, to work as a designer for the Birge Wallpaper Company. Burchfield remained in the Buffalo area for the rest of his life, rarely traveling for any extended period. Consequently, the subjects of Burchfield’s paintings are nearly always of his immediate environs, areas with which he was intimately familiar and felt a strong personal bond.
Burchfield approached art practically as a ritual, employing various systematic and serial approaches in an effort to capture his inner responses to the environment. In 1917, following his return from New York, Burchfield entered into an enormously self-reflective, brooding period, in which he became intensely interested in his childhood. He explored these ideas in his art, working principally in watercolor, producing landscapes colored with the moods and emotions he associated with the early years of his life. His style evolved quickly as he produced a huge number of works. (Burchfield later referred to 1917 as his “Golden Year.”) He developed an abstract notational system in order to help him symbolize his memories and images of his youth. His use of the brush loosened, and his compositions lost a degree of the flatness seen in his earlier works. His landscape pictures from this short period are more concerned with the evocation of mood than formal pictorial strategies, representing powerful personal responses to his subjects. Black often is the featured color in these pictures, giving them a dark and foreboding aura.
By the end of the year, having experienced an enormously prolific and exhausting period of artistic creation and exploration, Burchfield turned from painting landscapes to town scenes of Salem, many of them of the areas seen immediately outside the windows of his Salem home. This group of paintings exhibits the same brooding, somber, and mysterious qualities of his preceding landscapes, and are generally without people, featuring only houses and other small buildings. These almost hallucinatory images, in which the houses seem imbued with haunting personalities, are some of the artist’s most powerful and evocative of his career.
Around 1920, Burchfield began to paint his subjects in an increasingly realistic manner, employing a more conservative palette. The powerful, emotionally charged tenor of his earlier pictures gave way to a more subdued portrayal of the small-town landscape. Traveling often to the small hamlets and factories in the areas surrounding Salem, Burchfield painted railroads, iron foundries, and village thoroughfares in a clearly delineated and spare style reminiscent of Edward Hopper. He worked chiefly in this idiom for most of his mature career, applying himself first to Salem and, following his move there, Buffalo.
About 1943, after years of commercial and critical success, Burchfield returned to painting fantastic landscapes akin to those produced in his early career. Burchfield again became interested in his past, reviving the fantasies of his youth and breaking with the more realistic and solemn tone of his mid-career works. In addition to producing new pictures, Burchfield reworked large numbers of early pictures that he had put aside years before. He began to employ new stylistic approaches, employing small, brushy strokes that enliven the composition and give the pictures rhythm. These new pictures, with their colorful abstract and organic forms, explode with an energy and expressiveness previously unseen in his oeuvre.