Genius Loci: Burchfield’s Spirits of Place 1921-1943

  • Genius Loci: Burchfield's Spirits of Place 1921-1943

Event Category: Exhibits

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  • Growing up in Ohio, Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967) had the myriad details of its landscape indelibly imprinted in his mind. Not satisfied with simply documenting his favorite countryside vistas, small-town eccentricities, and disturbing industrial blight, he revealed the true spirit of the places he painted. His perspective was not passive. Instead, he endeavored to paint lively images that could stimulate several senses, condensing a span of time into each work—from the quick flash of lightning to a day’s meander through the woods. The character of each place was distinctive, capturing the magic of its essence.

    November 1921 marks the month Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York. Although he left his Ohio roots geographically, its memories still resonated in his imagination. His new job as assistant designer at the prestigious M. H. Birge & Sons Company enabled him to use details from some of his beloved Ohio landscapes in wallpaper and cretonne designs. While his love for wildflowers emerged in many non-traditional designs, he felt stifled by imposed design parameters for scenic wallpapers, and uncomfortably bore increasing responsibilities as a supervisor. The job had been an appropriate source of income as his life evolved, marrying Bertha Kenreich in 1922 and raising a family of four daughters and a son born between 1923 and 1929. Yet he yearned to have more time for his own artwork. Such a busy schedule meant he could paint only on weekends or evenings, so production was limited. In an alternative, collaborative effort, Burchfield designed and printmaker J. J. Lankes carved and printed small, affordable wood engravings.

    Burchfield’s big break came in February 1929, when collector and educator Edward Wales Root introduced him to the New York dealer Frank K. M. Rehn, whose gallery was representing Edward Hopper, among others. Burchfield resigned from Birge on July 31. Despite the October 29th stock market crash that initiated the worst economic collapse in the history of the modern industrial world, Burchfield persevered. In April 1930, he was given the first one-person exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which had just opened in November 1929. In the years that followed, his work was lauded in both solo and group exhibitions, including several that toured internationally. At the forefront of the American art scene, he won awards, served on exhibition juries, and was commissioned by Fortune magazine to paint industrial subjects.

    Fittingly, Burchfield’s style changed during this period. His depiction of urban, suburban, and rural scenes of Western New York became more realistic. His paintings grew larger and more detailed, yet they still revealed personal reflections of his subjects without the stylized “conventionalization” of his early symbolic language. In 1945, he explained how there had been a “romantic trend” in both his early career’s work from 1916 to 1920 as well as the two decades that followed. “The difference between the periods is in the form rather than the subject matter,” he stated. Flat patterning had evolved into a three-dimensional, lifelike approach to provide “more form and solidity.” However, he also tried to achieve a highly subjective representation of his subject. Not wanting to be labeled simply as a “Regionalist,” he continued: “The American Scene, in its more limited aspect, has no more significance than any other subject matter. While I feel strongly the personality of a given scene, its ‘genius loci’ as it were, my chief aim in painting it is the expression of a completely personal mood.”[i]

    This exhibition, curated by Burchfield Scholar Nancy Weekly, reflects the range of Burchfield’s artworks, from wallpaper designs and prints to masterful paintings produced between 1921, when he moved to Buffalo, until a turning point in 1943, when at the age of 50 he experimented with yet another great stylistic change. Works from national museums, private collections, and the Burchfield Penney Art Center illustrate this critical period in Burchfield’s life and career—when he became one of the most famous artists in the country.

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