Two Watercolors From Burchfield’s Golden Years
Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893–1967) has been commemorated with several major museum and gallery exhibitions in the past decade, including the 2010 retrospective, Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the 2009 exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art, The Architecture of Painting: Charles Burchfield, 1920.
While recent exhibitions have focused on the full span of Burchfield’s life and career, his early period merits special attention. From 1916–1918, Burchfield was highly prolific, painting hundreds of watercolors in his ever-evolving visionary style. The artist recalls Henry Turner Bailey, head of the Cleveland School of Design, as being particularly impressed by the design and pattern-oriented watercolors of this period.  Citing 1917 as “about the most important of [his] early years,” it was then that Burchfield developed the pictorial symbols to express his emotional connection to nature, a defining trait throughout his oeuvre.
Questroyal Fine Art currently owns two Burchfield watercolors from his early years, Backyard, Late Winter, 1916, and Dead Trees in Southern Woods, 1918, both of which are featured in our new catalogue. The below quotes are excerpts from Timeless: Important American Paintings Volume XII:
I was jolted by Blakelock and now, unexpectedly, by Burchfield. There is
nothing quite as astounding as the moment when an artwork engages that
part of your mind that lets you see natural phenomena you have never
before comprehended. It is as if you have a supernatural sensory ability: you
are seeing as well as hearing an image. This sounds a bit fantastical, but
some of you may or will experience just such a moment.
Burchfield actually invented systems of symbols to visually represent sound,
and his inanimate objects were given human emotions. All of his art was
designed to transport the viewer to a new level of discovery. He was confident
and determined, writing: “It came over me all at once how proud and glad
I was that I was ‘I’— that my conception of nature was sufficient to me.”
Both of the watercolors presented here were created within one year of
what Burchfield determined was his golden year: 1917. This was the period
when “memories of [his] boyhood crowded in upon [him] to make that
time also a dream world of the imagination.”
In Backyard — Late Winter, 1916, the artist commingles trees with
architectural elements, without undue emphasis on either. The arrangement
serves as an example of what Edward Hopper noted about Burchfield’s
ability to produce an evocative mood by refusing to use any one component
In Dead Trees in Southern Woods, 1918, a thick coppice of trees is
represented, with those in the background curved to form peaks like Gothic
arches (a symbol of God in nature). Burchfield’s interest in nature’s divinity
and mysticism is unmistakable.
–Louis M. Salerno, Owner, Questroyal Fine Art
 Oral history interview with Charles Burchfield, 1959 Aug. 19, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Backyard––Late Winter, 1916
Watercolor on paper
19 ½ x 13 5/8 inches (sight size)
Signed and dated lower right: –C E Burchfield–1916
Dead Trees in Southern Woods, 1918
Watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper
12 x 9 inches
Signed lower right: Chas Burchfield; signed and dated lower left: Chas Burchfield 1918
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