Charles Burchfield wasn’t necessarily manic-depressive; he perfectly reflected his time and place.
At home I watch the passage of time through the night sky. On the road, that’s often confused. I’m in my hometown of Buffalo, NY for the holiday weekend. The sky glows all night long. My insomnia is in sympathy with the place. This is, after all, a city where last call is at 4 AM, a remnant of the days when the mills roared 24-7.
The only Buffalo artist to enter the pantheon of the greats was Charles Ephraim Burchfield, born in 1893 in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio. Burchfield attended the Cleveland School of Art. In 1916, he received a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York. He quit after just one day.
Ice Glare, 1933, watercolor, charcoal, and graphite on paper, Charles Burchfield (Whitney Museum of American Art)
He came to Buffalo in 1921 to take a job with M. H. Birge & Sons. His painting influenced his wallpaper design work, and his work at Birge influenced his later paintings. The sinuous, twisting shapes of Burchfield’s electric trees are strongly reminiscent of the patterns of Art Nouveau home furnishings. “Design was my especial field in which I excelled,” he wrote. He was particularly attracted to Art Nouveau illustrators and Japanese and Chinese painting styles. This prepared the way for his later career.
Birge enabled him to marry and have a family, but in turn created a financial trap. Eight years and five kids later, he was suffering from ulcers. Anxiety was a state that seemed to dog him whenever he was in a nine-to-five job, whether at Birge, in the Army or as an art teacher.
The Coming of Spring, 1917-1943, watercolor, Charles Burchfield (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). This is an allegorical painting but it bears a strong resemblance to nearby Shale Creek Preserve.
“I’d rather be poor and hungry than be a widow,” he recollected his wife Bertha telling him. Still, painting was a good economic choice. Burchfield successfully weathered the Great Depression as a full-time painter.
Burchfield created realistic work during this period, work that associated him with his friend Edward Hopper or with the American Regionalistmovement of the period. However, he was, more than anything else, a visionary painter.
Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon, 1961-1965, watercolor, gouache, charcoal, and sgraffito (Burchfield Penney Art Center).
That included painting en plein air. Ice Glare (1933) was painted at the corner of Clinton and Lord Streets. Today, that intersection is now almost completely depopulated by urban flight.
Burchfield started with preparatory sketches, gridding them onto his paper for his final painting. He worked almost exclusively in dry brush in watercolor and gouache. He believed that watercolor works on paper could be as resistant to fading as oil paintings if stored and displayed properly.
Much has been interpreted about Burchfield’s mental state from his paintings. Was he manic-depressive or did he mirror the sights, sound and stimulus of the Jazz Age?
Song of the Telegraph(1917-1952, watercolor, private collection), is a sound painting of the Jazz Age.
Burchfield lived from 1925 to his death in 1967 in the tiny hamlet of Gardenville, which has been swallowed up by the suburb of West Seneca. He’s honored there with a nature center. Maybe if it ever stops raining, I’ll go walk there this weekend.
We slept under a Hudson’s Bay blanket last night. This is a great, hairy woolen thing suited for Arctic nights. That might seem odd to people in other parts of the country, but it’s still cold here. The unknown critic who once described Burchfield as “Edward Hopper on a rainy day” didn’t know Buffalo. It wasn’t that Burchfield was a depressive; it was all about where he lived.