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Charles Burchfield: Creator of Symbolism in Art

Updated on March 26, 2017

"The Four Seasons" by Charles Burchfield 1949--60

Watercolor on pieced paper mounted on board. 55 7/8 x 47 7/8 inches.
Watercolor on pieced paper mounted on board. 55 7/8 x 47 7/8 inches.

"The Red Admiral" by Charles Burchfield 1962

37 x 28 inches
37 x 28 inches

"The Insect Chorus" by Charles Burchfield 1917

Can you hear the sounds of the insects? 19 7/8 x 15 7/8 inches.
Can you hear the sounds of the insects? 19 7/8 x 15 7/8 inches.

Charles Burchfield's Paintings Trigger a Range of Sensations & Emotions

Why do I like the art of Charles Burchfield? His powerful paintings conjure up myriad emotions and sensations!

Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893--1967) was an American artist who drew upon his vivid memories of childhood to create some of the most innovative art ever seen. Searching for a way to express his unforgettable childhood experiences, Burchfield devised a series of symbols to express moods, sounds, movement, and sensations. The majority of Burchfield's works were composed from watercolors, but some of his larger works were done in oils.

Burchfield's sensitivity to sounds moved him almost as much as sight, and he was particularly fascinated with the sound of crickets and other insects. Symbols for these sounds, as well as symbols expressing moods such as: fear, morbidness, dangerous brooding, insanity, menace, fascination of evil, melancholy, hypnotic intensity, imbecility, fear of loneliness, nostalgia, and meditation are to be found in his 1917 sketchbook titled, "Conventions For Abstract Thoughts."

Most of Burchfield's symbols are based upon his association of emotions with particular shapes. For example, "fascination of evil" is depicted by a smiling mouth, "insanity" and "imbecility" by staring-eye motifs. Burchfield began to weave these symbols into his works in 1917, at the young age of twenty-four.

I especially enjoy the way Burchfield's interpretations often turn inanimate objects such as buildings, trees, and skies into menacing creatures, evoking feelings of a childhood encounter with the "boogey man." A prime example is his painting, "Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night," in which the church and sky above take on demonic overtones.

Many of Burchfield's paintings, such as "The Insect Chorus," and "Autumnal Fantasy," celebrate the hauntingly beautiful world of nature with the use of symbols (for movement, sensation, and sound), which are intended to draw the viewer into the painting as a participant rather than viewer.

Burchfield--one of America's Ten Greatest Painters of the 1930s

In a 1936 article, titled, "Burchfield's America," "Life" magazine declared Charles Burchfield one of America's ten greatest painters.

"Night of the Equinox" by Charles Burchfield 1917--1955

40 x 52 inches. "Night of the Equinox" took Burchfield thirty-eight years to complete, and combines many artistic phases of his career. Drama is created by a limited palette of somber colors, and bold slashes of paint represent a driving rain.
40 x 52 inches. "Night of the Equinox" took Burchfield thirty-eight years to complete, and combines many artistic phases of his career. Drama is created by a limited palette of somber colors, and bold slashes of paint represent a driving rain.

"Childhood's Garden" by Charles Burchfield 1917

18 7/8 x 27 inches
18 7/8 x 27 inches

The Symbols

In 1917, Burchfield devised a series of symbols to represent moods, sounds, movement, and sensations:

"Fear" Motif Sketch by Charles Burchfield 1917 - From His Sketchbook "Conventions For Abstract Thoughts"

Signs and Symbols Used by Burchfield:

  • "M"=Fear and anxiety
  • "V"=Hope and renewal
  • Everyday symbols (such as birds, trees, flowers, stars, sunlight, moonlight, and dark pools of water)=Burchfield's own feelings.
  • Chevrons and black dots=force and movement
  • Auras and "vibrating lines"=sounds (such as insects and taping woodpeckers)
  • Smiling mouth=fascination of evil
  • Staring eyes=insanity and imbecility
  • Peaked form=morbidness
  • Hooked spiral=fear
  • Looping line=A bird's musical notes

"Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night" by Charles Burchfield 1917

Composed in black ink, watercolor wash, and crayon,

"Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night," is one of the finest examples of Burchfield's early creative period. It's a documentation of the terror Burchfield felt as a child upon encountering the booming sound of church bells on a dark and dreary night.

Note the sinister-looking windows and demonic-appearing motif in the sky.

How many of Birchfield's motifs and symbols do you recognize in this piece?

Burchfield showed a talent for painting early on; he continued painting, interrupted by short periods of "painter's block," until his death in 1967.

"Rainy Night" by Charles Burchfield 1918

Created in watercolor and black chalk heightened with white. 18 x 24 inches.
Created in watercolor and black chalk heightened with white. 18 x 24 inches.

Between 1921 and 1929, Burchfield was a successful wallpaper designer for M.H. Birge & Sons Company

Click thumbnail to view full-size
"Sunflowers" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1921  "Bleeding Hearts" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1929"Morning Glories" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1925"September" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1925"Robins and Crocuses" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1929
"Sunflowers" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1921
"Sunflowers" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1921
"Bleeding Hearts" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1929
"Bleeding Hearts" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1929
"Morning Glories" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1925
"Morning Glories" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1925
"September" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1925
"September" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1925
"Robins and Crocuses" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1929
"Robins and Crocuses" Wallpaper Design by Charles Burchfield 1929

"A Dream of Butterflies" by Charles Burchfield 1962

30 x 40 inches
30 x 40 inches

"The Sphinx and the Milky Way" by Charles Burchfield 1946

"Night Scene" by Charles Burchfield 1935

Charles Burchfield in Later Years

His Life

Charles Burchfield was born on April 9, 1893, in Ashtabula, Ohio, the fifth of six children. His father died when Charles was only four. Left penniless, his mother took the family back to her hometown of Salem, Ohio.

Burchfield showed a strong interest and talent for painting early on, as well as a love for nature. He was a shy child, and very reserved; from fifth grade until his senior year in high school, he had no close friends, and spent a large part of his time alone. Burchfield began working part time while in the seventh grade. An avid reader, when not working, painting, or attending school, he read anything he could get his hands on.

In 1917, Burchfield began incorporating symbols, motifs, and colors into his work to represent movement, sounds, moods, and sensations. During this period, his paintings took on a bold, expressionistic quality. His largest body of work was produced during this time, and many critics agree that he created his most significant work during this period.

In 1918, Burchfield was drafted into the U.S. Army. After being released in 1919, he did a series of water colors which, unfortunately, he later destroyed.

In 1921, Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York, to work as a wallpaper designer for M.H. Birge & Sons Company. There, he met and married Bertha Kenreich. They had five children together. In 1929, Burchfield was able to quit his job working at a wallpaper company and support his household full time with his painting.

Although Burchfield spent most of his life in Buffalo, the greatest influences in his art are derived from his experiences while living as a child in rural Ohio--frolicking in the fields and woods, collecting wildflowers and pollywogs, minnows, moths, and other insects, as well as frequenting the local swimming hole.

Many of Burchfield's paintings represent classic Americana of the period, providing fascinating historical documents. Burchfield is best known for his American Scene paintings of the 1920s and '30s, where he combined nature scenes with views of small-town America.

In the 1940s, Burchfield rejected this realism, returning to his earlier approach of focusing on nature, embracing his beloved expressionistic style of painting once again. During this time, Burchfield even managed to rework many of his older paintings, often pasting paper around the borders in order to extend them. One example of this is his painting, "The Sphinx and the Milky Way," in which Burchfield enlarges the painting by attaching it, along with several blank sheets of paper, to a larger sheet of paper, then continuing the painting on the additions.

Burchfield experienced many ups and downs in his art career, continually changing his focus. He often experienced periods of time when he was unable to bring himself to paint. Thankfully, these bleak periods eventually passed, and Charles always rebounded with renewed vim and vigor.

From 1949--52, Burchfield taught art at the Art Institute of Buffalo. He also taught summer class at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, and the University of Buffalo, as well as the University of Minnesota, Duluth Branch, Duluth Minnesota. At Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Burchfield taught advanced seminar.

In 1967, Charles Burchfield died of a heart attack in West Seneca, New York.

During his lifetime, Burchfield participated in many one-man exhibitions, and was the recipient of many awards and honors for his art.

Writing in his exhibition catalog of the University of Arizona Art Gallery (1965), Burchfield said that he believed 1917 to be the "golden year" of his career.

Many of Burchfield's original works are housed at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College, New York, which was originally dedicated in Burchfield's honor in 1966.

"The real artist is never at rest--he is always painting, if not actually, with his eye, or in his mind."

— Charles Burchfield

"February Dusk" by Charles Burchfield 1918

15 x 21 inches
15 x 21 inches

"Still Life in Winter" by Charles Burchfield 1951

Watercolor and pencil on paper mounted on paperboard. 29 7/8 x 40 inches.
Watercolor and pencil on paper mounted on paperboard. 29 7/8 x 40 inches.

"Storm at Sunset" by Charles Burchfield 1959

30 x 53 inches
30 x 53 inches

"Forest Fire in Moonlight" by Charles Burchfield 1920

Can you see the devilish face? 25 1/2 x 18 1/4 inches
Can you see the devilish face? 25 1/2 x 18 1/4 inches

"Sunday Morning at Eleven O'Clock" by Charles Burchfield 1917

22 x 18 inches
22 x 18 inches

"Song of the Telegraph" by Charles Burchfield 1917--1952

Watercolor on paper. 34 x 53 inches.
Watercolor on paper. 34 x 53 inches.

"North Wind in March" by Charles Burchfield 1960--66

Watercolor. 47 1/2 x 59 1/2 inches.
Watercolor. 47 1/2 x 59 1/2 inches.

"Street Scene" by Charles Burchfield 1940--47

39 x 53 inches
39 x 53 inches

"Moon Over Village" by Charles Burchfield 1917

18 x 22 inches
18 x 22 inches

Heat Waves in a Swamp (Part 1)

Heat Waves in a Swamp (Part 2)

"February Thaw" by Charles Burchfield 1920

"Orion in December" by Charles Burchfield 1959

39 7/8 x 32 7/8 inches. "Orion in December" brings to mind the myth of the hunter, Orion, who although loved by Artemis, was accidentally killed by her. Upon his death, Orion rises up to heaven to be eternally embraced in the constellations.
39 7/8 x 32 7/8 inches. "Orion in December" brings to mind the myth of the hunter, Orion, who although loved by Artemis, was accidentally killed by her. Upon his death, Orion rises up to heaven to be eternally embraced in the constellations.

"Steel Mill Houses" by Charles Burchfield 1919

19 x 32 inches
19 x 32 inches

"The Night Wind" by Charles Burchfield 1918

Created in watercolor, gouache, and pencil.
Created in watercolor, gouache, and pencil.

"October in the Woods" by Charles Burchfield 1938

45 x 57 inches
45 x 57 inches

"Sun and Rocks" by Charles Burchfield 1918--50

40 x 56 inches. Watercolor and gouache on paper.
40 x 56 inches. Watercolor and gouache on paper.

"Sultry Day" by Charles Burchfield 1959

40 x 33 inches
40 x 33 inches

"Pyramid of Fire" by Charles Burchfield 1929

24 1/2 x 32 7/8 inches. Watercolor on paper.
24 1/2 x 32 7/8 inches. Watercolor on paper.

"Rainy Night" by Charles Burchfield 1929--1930.

30 x 42 inches
30 x 42 inches

"The Four Seasons" by Charles Burchfield 1949--60.

Watercolor on pieced paper mounted on board. 55 7/8 x 47 7/8 inches.
Watercolor on pieced paper mounted on board. 55 7/8 x 47 7/8 inches.

"Autumnal Fantasy" by Charles Burchfield 1916--1944

Amazon Editorial Review:

"Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) was an innovative visionary of American modernism, a watercolor painter who infused his landscapes of upstate New York and Ohio and scenes of small town industrialization with pulsing line and crackling, fluid color. He was also an accomplished writer who kept extensive journals and published several important essays during his lifetime. Burchfield's early watercolors were often strongly expressionistic, projecting a buoyant spirituality; he reached a critical juncture around 1920, when he turned to modernist pictorial strategies to express a severe geometry of houses, factories and barren trees, with skies traversed by stylized smoke. After moving to Buffalo in 1921, he became a founder of the Regionalist movement, but he returned to the dynamic expressionism of his youth in the 1940s; as he told a friend, "It is not that I am trying to escape real life, but that the realm of fantasy offers the true solution of truly evaluating an experience." Published for DC Moore Gallery's survey exhibition (and coinciding with the Whitney Museum's 2010 retrospective), this volume presents a career-wide selection of watercolors and drawings, many of which are drawn from private collections, and have never or very rarely been exhibited. The images are complemented by four autobiographical essays, spanning the years 1928 to 1965, which provide an intriguing window into the artist's complex personality. All are out of print and difficult to locate, making this catalogue an important reference source as well as a visually striking presentation of his work."

Burchfield's Mark

Quick--Name Your Favorite Burchfield Painting!

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    • profile image

      artdecoco 7 years ago

      I really like the insect corus and the rainy night....but they all have to be my favs

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 6 years ago

      Oh gosh! There is SO much going on in these works of art ... OK, let me pick "Childhood's Garden" as I think being a child at heart can keep us young and imaginative!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Autumnal Fantasy

    • Bellezza-Decor profile image

      Bellezza-Decor 4 years ago from Canada

      I'm curious as to why he thought "M"=Fear and anxiety?

    • Blonde Blythe profile image
      Author

      Blonde Blythe 4 years ago

      @Bellezza-Decor: Maybe because of the peaks and valleys in the "M" shape?

    • profile image

      Colin323 2 years ago

      Very interestng. I hadn't heard of him before, but I like his work, particularly the 'Rainy Night' street scene you illustrated. I'll look out for his work.

    • Blonde Blythe profile image
      Author

      Blonde Blythe 2 years ago

      @Colin323: Thank you very much! I'm so glad you enjoy his work! Burchfield's work is very innovative and emotional--it speaks to my heart. Burchfield is one of my very favorite artists of all time!

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