Hoyt Institute exhibit takes viewers on artist's 'Path to Solitude'
Watercolorist Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967) might not be the most famous American artist of the 20th century, but he might have been America's most original. That's saying a lot for a guy who grew up in Salem, Ohio, and spent most of his life in Gardenville, N.Y., a small town south of Buffalo.
Burchfield was pegged as a regionalist because of his mid-career work such as "Sun, Moon, Star" (1929-55), a tranquil scene that typifies a Midwestern town, or "Rainy Night" (1929), which rivals the iconic "Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper (1882-1967), who was a friend of Burchfield's. But a new show at the Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts in New Castle proves Burchfield was much more.
That's specifically evident through the presentation of the artist's opus: "Solitude," a massive watercolor that was nearly 45 years in the making, loosely conceived in 1918 and completed in 1963. On loan from the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in Buffalo, N.Y., it is accompanied by 38 sketches by the artist that relate to its creation.
Born in Ashtabula, Ohio, in 1894, Burchfield graduated from the Cleveland School of Art and studied briefly at the National Academy of Design in New York before moving to Buffalo in 1921 where he took a job designing wallpaper for M.H. Birge & Sons Co., one of the nation's most prominent wallpaper companies.
Within the decade, Frank K.M. Rehn Galleries in New York City began to represent him, and, in 1929, he quit that job and began to paint full-time.
Making a comfortable living from his art -- enough to raise five children with his wife, Bertha Kenreich, whom he married in 1922 -- it was the life that every artist dreams of. Except that Burchfield was a tortured soul.
"Burchfield suffered from depression most of his life, to the point that many believe he was bipolar," says Kimberly Koller-Jones, the Hoyt's executive director and chief curator of this exhibition. "This is reflected very strongly in his journals, and you can see it in his work."
Plagued by hallucinations at an early age -- which is reflected in paintings such as "The Night Wind," done in January 1918, depicting ominous cloud formations looming over a snow-covered cabin -- Burchfield made frequent use of symbolism in his work.
That particular painting, which is not in this exhibition, shows the home of Mrs. Margaret "Pommy" Weaver, a neighbor to the artist's childhood home in Salem, and re-creates a specific childhood impression of "monsters and strange phantoms flying over the land," according to the artist's notes.
And although it's not in the exhibition, it's important to mention here because 1918 was a pivotal year. That year, Burchfield made some sketches in his notebook he called "Conventions for Abstract Thought." In it, he developed various symbols, borrowed from nature, to represent various moods or pathological states including "fear," "insanity," "brooding," "morbidness" and "imbecility."
"A cave, for example was symbolic of a woman, fertility and things like that," Koller-Jones says. "And sharp, jagged and pointed edges were referring to a man and his potency."
1918 also was the year he created a small watercolor he called "The Cave and Cliff." It was based on a landscape near Salem, but more importantly it was the impetus for "Solitude," which he began to work on in earnest from 1944-46, finally completing it in 1963.
Looking over the 38 sketches on display in three galleries here, it's somewhat easy to see the artist's thought process in the form of little quotations that fill the margins, such as, "Rainbow• On the falls. Big splash at bottom." Other markings show consideration about the size of a painting, "42 x 63 inches," or working out his signature in an elaborately designed monogram.
"A lot of these artist notes refer back to his personal journals that he wrote in daily," Koller-Jones says. "I love the fact that you can read his thoughts as he was working out his ideas."
Adhering to the 19th-century Romantic tradition of revealing nature's primordial energy through the drama of human emotions, Burchfield viewed himself as a romantic landscape painter and spoke of the inspiration of nature, music and literature.
"He read a lot. And he read a lot of Henry David Thoreau," Koller-Jones says. "Thoreau wrote a piece on solitude, and it was that piece that inspired Burchfield when he was looking at 'The Cave and Cliff.' That represented what solitude was for him. So, he had the concept and the title early on -- it just took him 20 years to work it out until he was satisfied that it represented what he wanted."
Of course, Burchfield wasn't working on just one piece for 45 years. Fittingly, another gallery is filled with works from various decades throughout the course of his long career.
Quiet works such as "Day in Midwinter" (1945), which features a snow-covered fence with a small, sleepy Midwestern town in the distance, hang opposite more jubilant pieces like "Late Winter Radiance" (1961-62), which seems to jump off the wall with its vibrant yellow sky representing sunlight shining through unfurling, snow-covered branches.
The latter, more mature, work is characteristically Burchfield. A symphony of color, symbolism and sensibilities that reflect upon the life and life's work of this most magnificent yet tormented artist.
"He used art and symbols as a way of communicating and dealing with his depression," Koller-Jones says. "And, in a lot of instances, it saved him from thoughts of suicide, because he was able to put those thoughts on paper and get rid of them rather than harboring them and doing harm to himself." Additional Information:
'Charles Burchfield: Path to Solitude'What: A collection of preliminary sketches demonstrating the artistic process in Charles Burchfield's development of a major painting, 'Solitude'
When: Through Feb. 28. Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; and noon-4 p.m. Sundays
Where: Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts, 124 E. Leasure Ave., New Castle