National Museum of American Art

Washington, D.C.

(202) 633-8998



The Paintings of Charles Burchfield

September 26, 1997 - January 25, 1998


Icebound Lake Boat, 1924

Charles Burchfield


National Museum of American Art, Gift of Charles E. Burchfield Foundation


Eighty-five works by Charles Burchfield, one of the preeminent American painters of the 20th century, will go on view September 26, 1997 at the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. The exhibition will include five works from the museum's own collection, including "Orion in December" painted in 1959, and several other works appearing only at this venue. "The Paintings of Charles Burchfield" continues through January 25, 1998.

Burchfield spent most of his life (1893-1967) in two small towns of the Great Lakes region: Salem, Ohio and Gardenville, New York (near Buffalo). His subjects reflected his immediate surroundings - the views from his studio, changing weather and seasons, sagging houses and fences. His works convey a psychological depth that belies the simple subject matter. Paintings of exuberant, sun-filled landscapes and ecstatic, starry nights contrast with brooding nature scenes, images of decay, and eerie, haunted buildings. Entries in detailed journals that Burchfield kept hroughout his life offer insights on the meaning of particular works.

"This exhibition is important because, for the first time, Burchfield's paintings are displayed thematically, rather than chronologically," said Joann Moser, senior curator of graphic arts at the National Museum of American Art. "This fresh approach permits study of how Burchfield treated similar subjects over a span of 50 years." Four main themes emerge: Views from the House and Studio; Memory and Fantasy; The Regional Scene; and Nature, the Cosmos and the Divine.

Painting in his favorite medium of watercolor, Burchfield keenly observed his surroundings and transformed them into works of art. Although his studio was located far from the major urban art centers, Burchfield was very much a Fart of the contemporary art world during his lifetime. His work was sold by two important New York galleries, regularly included in exhibitions and collections of major museums, awarded numerous prizes and known regionally, nationally and internationally.

In the body of work grouped under "Memory and Fantasy," Burchfield painted from real and imagined memories ofhis childhood, as well as from dreams. He was fascinated by spirits and mysterious places filled with a sense of foreboding. Burchfield's fears and anxieties are palpably visible.

Works in "The Regional Scene" depict rural houses and barns and gritty images from industry such as factories, grain elevators and steel smelters. These realistic works sold well in Burchfield's day and earned him recognition in the 1930s and 1940s as a leading painter of the American Scene.

Burchfield believed strongly in God's presence in nature. Paintings grouped as "Nature, the Cosmos, and the Divine" convey the deep spirituality at the root of Burchfield's work. Nature in all its fearful splendor fills his canvases. Icy winter, the glowing heat of midsummer, a shimmering moon, radiant stars and a flash of lightning, all represented for Burchfield the secret and mysterious processes of nature.

Right: Night of the Equinox, 1917-55, watercolor, gouache, ink and charcoal, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design; Below: Yellow Afterglow, 1916, watercolor, gouache and pencil, Burchfield-Penney Art Center, Buffalo State College, Buffalo, New York, Gift of Tony Sisti.

Beginning in the 1940s, Burchfield returned to his interest in nature scenes, often reworking earlier paintings. Possibly drawing on skills learned as a wallpaper designer for M.H. Birge and Sons in Buffalo during the 1920s, he meticulously attached new paper to the edges of some of his earlier works, transforming them into more fully developed compositions.

"Tne Paintings of Charles Burchfield" was organized by the Cohumbus Museum of Art with support from the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation, Ameritech, National City Bank and Kennedy Galleries. Its presentation at the National Museum of American Art is made possible in part by Anne and Ronald Abramson, Paula and Peter Lunder and the Smithsonian's Special Exhibition Program.

The exhibition was co-curated by Nannette V.Maciejunes, senior curator at the Columbus Museum of Art, and art critic and independent scholar Michael D. Hall.

The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive book titled "The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest" and written by the co-curators and a noted panel of contributors, including Henry Adams, Kenneth L. Ames, Michael Kammen and Donald Kuspit. It was nationally publishedby Harry N. Abrams,Inc. and is available in hardcover and in softcover.



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This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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