CHARLES EPHRAIM BURCHFIELD 1893-1967
September Wind and Rain, 1949
Watercolor on paper mounted on board, 22 x 48" (55.88 x 121.92 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 953-W-102
Charles Burchfield was a keen observer of nature, who, as he said "early formed the habit of wandering off to the woods and fields by myself, or accompanied only by a dog, in search of wild flowers in the spring, or colored leaves in the fall. . . ."I He kept a journal as full of poetic and moving nature imagery as are his paintings. He also kept portfolios with notes on his observations for each month of the year. Of September he noted: "Nature ... has forsaken her secluded haunts, the woods, and has gone forth boldly to the fields. Burchfield's memories of childhood and his imaginative fantasies were as important as his naturalist's observations.
Unlike his inward life, his outward life was deceptively simple, one of work, first to support himself and later his family. After his father's death the family moved to Salem, Ohio, where he attended public schools and worked from the seventh grade onward. After graduation from high school, he attended the Cleveland School of Art (1912-16), intending to become an illustrator, but while there decided to be a painter. After serving as a camouflage artist in the army, he moved to Buffalo in 1921 and for almost a decade designed wallpaper. In 1929, when Frank K. M. Rehn became his dealer, he was able to devote himself to painting. John I. H. Baur, with Burchfield's concurrence, saw in his work an early period from 1915-21, when he treated landscape in realistic, decorative or fantastic ways; a middle period, 1921-43, when he painted the Middle West more realistically; and a late period, when he returned to fantastic landscapes. Baur called him the last of the pantheists.
Burchfield valued the intensity of his work and avoided dissipating it: "My instinct has always been to shut off all means of self-expression except the brush, so that its product might be all the more intense." For the same reason he avoided making color sketches because "It takes a little bit of the edge off what you want to create." Watercolor was his favorite medium, and he worked in "any one of three different ways. I go out and paint directly from a subject-or use a subject to improvise; or I work, and then bring the work into the studio and complete it; or, I sketch, and then do the whole picture in the studio." (Fig. 1) In watercolors such as September Wind and Rain, he did not use a traditional watercolor technique. "I use a dry paper and what is called a dry brush, which isn't dry, of course, in that it has the minimum amount of water on it, and I stand them up just like that is on the easel there and work on it just like ... painting an oil painting ...... This technique had two advantages, one, that he could make changes: "I would take a sponge and wipe that out and do it over again ... and the way it is done you wouldn't know that it wasn't put there originally." The other advantage was that he could sit back and study large pictures: ". . . I put something on, then I come back and sit-and look at it-did it work? Or didn't it?"
In 1949, the year that he painted September Wind and Rain, he taught for the first time during the summer session at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. Describing teaching as a "major disturbance," he nonetheless taught a special class at the Art Institute of Buffalo and continued to serve as a member of the Board of Trustees of the American Academy in Rome, Italy.8 Teaching, though disturbing, gave him the income he needed to produce his much admired later works. While teaching at Duluth, he began to enjoy the Finnish writers recommended to him by a Finnish editor in Duluth: "Thus was I introduced to a whole new world of literature: Alexis Chive-The Seven Brothers ... F. E. Sillanpaa-The Maid Si1ja, Unto Seppanen-Sun and Storm, Sally Salminen-Katrina. The great charm for me in these works is not only the able characterization of the human beings involved, but also ... for the
remarkable descriptions of landscapes, nature, seasons, and weather."') The Finnish writers struck a responsive chord because Burchfield had always been fascinated by the weather, recalling: "I like the drama of the progression of the seasons.... I've been interested in weather since I was a little kid. When I was in the third grade, at the end of each day, I'd write down on my mother's big kitchen calendar what kind of weather we had that day."
The 1940s marked the transition from Burchfield's middle to third period, the return to fantastic landscapes. Baur described this as the return of the spirit of 1917, when Burchfield's youthful fantasies were at their height. By 1949, this return was not unconscious, for in his journal Burchfield wrote that some unfinished works "must increase their fantasy character still more and reduce or even eliminate my realistic approach. They must be distilled into pure art forms. The blend of realism and conventionalized fantasy is a compromise and they lose power for that reason." September Wind and Rain has all the power he desired in its suggestive black lines and shapes, contrasting with patches of white, gray, blue, green and yellow, the echoing shapes symbolizing as much as representing wind and rain. Such loosely painted shapes and patches create a surface pattern of great ingenuity and vitality. In the midst of this drama of the approach of winter, an orange butterfly seems unaffected, perhaps symbolizing not only the brevity and fragility of life, but its continuity.