A Different Canvas: Charles Burchfield’s Landscapes for Interiors

This is the fourth installment in a series of posts in which Venetian Red explores aspects of artist-designed textiles and wallpaper.  For all posts in the series, click here.

by Christine Cariati

Charles Burchfield, Morning Glories, c.1925
Design for fabric
Burchfield Penney Art Center

When Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) was a young man in Ohio he painted experimental watercolors of nature and insects in an expressionistic and exuberant style where color had deep emotional resonance and even sounds were depicted through an invented calligraphic shorthand. In 1930, the newly-opened Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted Burchfield’s work in their inaugural solo exhibition.

Charles E. Burchfield, The Insect Chorus, 1917
Opaque & transparent watercolor w/ink, graphite & crayon
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York

In the 1930s and 1940s Burchfield shifted gears and began to paint the masterful, quiet yet dramatic portraits of industrial small town and city life for which he became very well known. These paintings were mostly watercolors but had the solidity and palette more commonly found in oil painting.

Charles Burchfield, Freight Cars Under a Bridge, 1933
Watercolor, Detroit Institute of Arts

Then, in 1943, when Burchfield was fifty years old, he returned to the landscape and created a stunning body of work. These large-scale, semi-abstracted landscapes vibrate with energy that lovingly reflects on and explores the landscape of upstate New York—the change of seasons, weather, clouds and flora—in a deeply inspired and spiritual way that has strong psychological and emotional resonance.

Charles Burchfield, Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring), 1950
Watercolor on paper
Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York
photo courtesy Gary Mamay

VR recently discovered that in 1921, after studying at the Cleveland School of Art, the young Burchfield relocated to Buffalo, New York (where he lived the rest of his life) to work as a wallpaper designer at M.H. Birge & Sons. He also designed coordinating fabrics for interiors. These designs are harbingers of Burchfield’s later work, celebrating nature and the seasons in a decorative yet very painterly and beautiful way. It’s an interesting variation on the theme of established artists venturing into textile design and yet another example of the fruitfulness of embracing both decorative and fine art.

Charles Burchfield, Bleeding Hearts, 1929
Design for wallpaper

Charles Burchfield, Robins and Crocuses, 1929
Design for wallpaper

Charles Burchfield, September, c. 1925

A retrospective of Burchfield’s work, Heatwaves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, is at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through January 3, 2010.

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2 Responses to “A Different Canvas: Charles Burchfield’s Landscapes for Interiors”

  1. I think that the De Young has one of his watercolors. It might even be on display although I can’t swear to it.

  2. beautiful! In my blissful ignorance, I’d never heard of him, nor of the Little Gallery. I always learn cool things from Venetian Red.

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