Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Summer Solstice (In Memory of the American Chestnut Tree), 1961-66; watercolor on paper, 54 x 60 inches; Image from the Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives
Summer Solstice is the radiant first day of summer in the northern hemisphere. It will be the longest day of the year and the shortest night. Charles Burchfield wanted to celebrate “this great moment when the sun and earth meet in their greatest intimacy—a truly mystical event—” by painting one of his grandest landscapes. He said, “This idea of Summer Solstice has haunted me ever since I set down the idea in the early 20s – In fact, it goes back even further, to 1915, when I first began to see nature with the eye of an interpreter – Some of the notes of June of that year already express an abstract conventionalization of the idea of noon on the longest day of the year.”
In 1961 he was also inspired after reading The Tree Book, a popular guide to a knowledge of the trees of North America and to their uses and cultivation by Julia Ellen Rogers. It was first published in 1905 and reissued in 1916. Her description of the American Chestnut Tree, which is now extinct, almost overwhelmed him. He quotes her writing:
…she tells of a “famous giant” (chestnut) at the foot of Mt. Aetna—the “chestnut of a Hundred Horsemen” (because it sheltered them all at one time) had a diameter of over 60 feet, and lived to be 2000 years old — Though hollow and with its shell in five parts when measured, records showed that a century before it had been a continuous cylinder. Each year the decaying stems wore a crown of green until an eruption of the volcano destroyed the tree. / It is almost impossible to conceive of such a glorious plant — The longing to see such a phenomenon makes me almost sick with frustration — / I am planning to work on my Memorial to the Chestnut Tree.
His masterpiece, Summer Solstice (In Memory of the American Chestnut Tree) (1961-66) is one of Charles E. Burchfield’s most beloved paintings. The Burchfield Penney Art Center is proud to own the studies for this awe-inspiring painting in the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation Archives, donated in 2006.