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Spiritual Nature as Viewed by Charles E. Burchfield


They were kindred spirits. Two of the greatest watercolor artists of the American 20th century, Andrew Wyeth and Charles Ephraim Burchfield, both drew constant inspiration from nature through landscapes surrounding their homes and studios.

Place, memory, and emotion are closely intertwined in the paintings of Burchfield (1893–1967) at a major exhibition currently on view at the Brandywine River Museum of Art through November 16. “Exalted Nature: The Real and Fantastic World of Charles E. Burchfield” features more than 50 paintings borrowed from public and private collections across the United States, providing a remarkable opportunity to examine the artist’s luminous and spiritual interpretations of the world around him.

Wyeth met Burchfield in 1945 when Wyeth traveled to the artist’s Gardenville, N. Y. studio. What drew the legendary realist painter to Burchfield was the way he obsessively studied nature. Burchfield enhanced specific sites with his imagination and spirituality to make them mystical, fantastical, creating a kind of sublime nature rooted in reality.

“People that come to the exhibit will see something similar, but see how nature can be expressed in very different ways,” explains Audrey Lewis, curator of the show. “They were both so absorbed in their surroundings with very different results. They transformed even the most ordinary things through their imaginations. Burchfield’s works explode. Wyeth’s are reductive. Burchfield had a wild adventurous use of color. Wyeth was exploring something more dark and serious.”

Co-organized by the Brandywine River Museum of Art and the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, N.Y., the largest repository of the artist’s work, the exhibition spans the breadth of Burchfield’s six decades of painting, tightly focusing on his vibrant landscapes of color, light, and movement.

Burchfield painted landscapes that portrayed no people, yet were alive with human emotion. Visitors can view works from his first period of such idiosyncratic works as “Gothic Window Trees” and “Windy May Morning” to his late visionary work “Early Spring.”

“Burchfield worked in watercolor like an oil painter, using an easel, and a large format by joining pieces of watercolor paper together,” notes Lewis. “He worked in an opaque medium, building the painting layer by layer to where you get a very complex surface. It’s really an eye-opening experience to see his work.”

Burchfield was born in Ashtabula, Ohio, a small town on Lake Erie’s southeastern shore that was shaped by the growing coal, steel ,and railroad industries. He was taken by the rural landscape from childhood, keeping detailed and spirited journal accounts of his observations and reactions to his surroundings, a practice he continued throughout his life.

Burchfield studied at the Cleveland School of Art from 1912 to 1916 and afterwards won a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York, but left after only one day. Returning to Salem, Ohio late in 1916, he took an accounting job and began a period during which he produced more than 200 paintings and cultivated many of the themes recurring in his works.

“It was the golden year of my career,” remembered Burchfield of being 24 in 1917. “Memories of my boyhood crowded in upon me to make that time a dream world of the imagination.”

Burchfield moved to Buffalo in 1921 and spent the rest of his life there and in nearby Gardenville. His career blossomed during the 1920s, and in 1929, he was able to give up his job in a wallpaper factory to pursue painting full time. A master of watercolor, he went against the norm in his approach – pushing the boundaries of the medium through continual experimentation. Burchfield infused his paintings with sensory reactions to light, the sights and sounds of the weather, the changing seasons, the calls of the birds, and even the hum of insects.

“It seems at times I should be a composer of sounds, not only the rhythms and colors,” Burchfield wrote. “Walking under trees, I felt as if the color made sound.”

In the 1940s, Burchfield went back to some of his early work, this time with a more mature technique. The artist pasted additional paper onto the margins of the originals and painted out to those new edges in order to reconsider and re-explore their themes. It elevated his work to another level in which his visionary approach was predominant.

Charles Burchfield at work.

A central focus of the current exhibition is “Nighthawks at Twilight,” begun in 1917 and revisited in 1949. Twilight was a particularly compelling time of day for Burchfield. He loved such transitory moments, whether it was from day to night or one season to the next.

In “Nighthawks,” Burchfield creates an eerie and darkly foreboding atmosphere, using the strength of the wind through the grass, flowers and trees, all bending, to contrast with the tree tops in dramatic silhouette against the threatening sky.

“You see a storm passing and everything is in movement,” Lewis observes. “The grass and trees are all vibrating and the birds are as well. The misshapen clouds and nighthawks crowding the sky further heighten the sense of an ominous feeling.”

One of Burchfield’s last paintings, still on his easel at the time of his death in early 1967, is “Early Spring,” depicting the landscape around his Gardenville home. Again, this transition from winter to spring was one of his favorite subjects. In this painting, a luminous yellow halo line surrounds the tightly grouped trees to suggest the spirituality the artist found in nature.

“Exalted Nature” represents something of a new approach for the iconic former Brandywine grist mill , as the board and staff hope to expand exhibit offerings and tie the museum and conservancy more closely together. The new initiative takes a broader context to American art – beyond all things Wyeth – and tap into American artists whose works possess a true affinity to the Brandywine Valley.

A slate of multi-disciplinary events, lectures, and other programs are taking place during the run of the Burchfield exhibition; for details, visit www.brandywinemuseum.org.