Charles Ephraim Burchfield

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Charles Ephraim Burchfield (American, 1893-1967) completed the pencil and watercolor studies featured in the Gallery during the years 1915-1918. 1915 marked his junior year at the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art), this is the year he began painting independently, Burchfield was twenty-two years old.

Fifty years later, in a reflective statement pertaining to the celebration of "His Golden Year", the artist wrote:

1915 was the year that ideas came to me which were to haunt me for the rest of my life; ideas and visions of paintings that were far beyond my ability or knowledge to carry out and still are, after fifty years, an unfulfilled dream. These ideas began to emerge in such paintings as the 1943 Coming of Spring, the 1949 Transition, Autumn to Winter, the 1960 Four Seasons and the 1962 Moon and Thunderhead.*

These featured works are essential evidence of Burchfield's early vigorous drive to study "clouds, trees, fields, field flowers and grasses, moonrises, sunsets and storms… the ideas and materials for a lifetime"* As observer, student or connoisseur, this an opportunity to enjoy the inter-relationships of a concentrated group of early studies and to conjecture their significance in the sum of the artist's work. While only a few pieces may be identified as studies related to specific later paintings, all clearly embody Charles Burchfield's skillful drafts-manship as well as his passionate interaction with nature.

Along with producing plentiful pencil studies in the summer and fall of 1915, the young Burchfield made watercolors in his "spare time!" before his summer-time work, lunch time, after work and long into many nights. He tells us:

For these I devised a simple formula. Everything was reduced to the twelve colors of the color wheel, plus black and white, with minimum modifications. Thus sunlit earth would be orange; shadows on it, red-violet; sunlit grass, yellow; shadows, blue or blue-green and so on. They were executed in flat pattern with little or no evidence of a third dimension.*

We hope you enjoy this vignette of Charles Burchfield's early works.

* CB His Golden year, A Retrospective Exhibition of Watercolors, Oils and Graphics by Charles E. Burchfield, The University of Arizona Press, Tucson 1966.

Burchfield Homestead Society @
Burchfield-Penney Art Center @

Burchfield decided to become a painter and considered 1915 as the beginning of his career as an artist. He spent the winter and spring of 1915 making "all day sketches" and during the following summer he "made hundreds and hundreds of studies of clouds, tree, fields, field flowers and grasses, moonrises, sunsets and storms. All the ideas and materials for a lifetime had to be gathered that summer or never." His interest in Chinese scroll painting prompted him to make graphic conventions based on forms in nature. He was awarded Third Prize and $25.00 for his entry in the Cleveland School of Art competition for a poster design for the opening of the new Cleveland Museum of Art.

Burchfield worked in the cost department of the Mullins Company. Following his graduation from the Cleveland School of Art, he went to New York, where he had been awarded a scholarship at the National Academy of Design. He left the National Academy after one day in life class. He met Mrs. Mary Mowbray-Clarke, who exhibited a group of his watercolors at the Sunwise Turn Bookshop and continued to do so for the next six years. Burchfield's watercolors of this period are characterized by their decorative quality. At this time he was in the habit of starting his pictures by outlining the design in pencil with color notations later to be painted. "My 1916 watercolors were meticulously done; everything was first carefully drawn and outlined in pencil, then the colors filled in. This manner was followed through most of the summer after my graduation... My mind was teeming with ideas;... By late summer... I gradually abandoned the pre-painting pencil work and... I virtually abandoned the pointed brush for the sable "bright" oil brush, which allowed a more robust, firm stroke, similar indeed to the oil on canvas technique. This led directly into what I call the "1917 manner" (although by November 1916 it was in full swing)..." In the fall of this year his first exhibition was held at the Cleveland School of Art.

Burchfield believed the year 1917 to be the "golden year" of his career and one of his most productive. During working hours he made notations of ways of working and ideas to be carried out on his weekends. Many of these sketches were done rapidly and were unpremeditated, and some of them were completed during his brief lunch periods. He devoted the summer to recreating childhood memories and moods, and experimented with the visualization of sounds and the development of shorthand graphic symbols based on natural forms.

Excerpts on his early years from: Charles Burchfield: Catalogue of Paintings in Public and Private Collections, Museum of Art, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York, copyright 1970