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Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), The Fragrance of Spring (Bee Hepaticas), c. 1962; watercolor, charcoal, and chalk on Bee watercolor paper mounted on board, 38 x 29 inches; The Spiro Family Collection, courtesy of Debra Force Fine Art, New York

Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), The Fragrance of Spring (Bee Hepaticas), c. 1962; watercolor, charcoal, and chalk on Bee watercolor paper mounted on board, 38 x 29 inches; The Spiro Family Collection, courtesy of Debra Force Fine Art, New York

During his walks through the woods, Charles Burchfield noticed the smallest details that he later magnified in scale and symbolic stature. One of his favorite authors, John Burroughs, would have described him as an observer “who looks closely and steadily at nature, and notes the individual features of tree and rock and field….His senses are so delicate that in his evening walk he feels the warm and the cool streaks in the air, his nose detects the most fugitive odors, his ears the most furtive sounds.”

 

Bee Hepaticas dramatizes Burchfield’s most beloved flowers in a synesthetic cross between scent and vision. Burchfield frequently gave hepaticas to the women he loved: his mother and his wife, Bertha. He gathered bouquets or transplanted woodland clusters into his home garden, cherishing them as one of the first signs of Spring. In this painting, the perfume of delicate lavender and pink blossoms emerges from a thick carpet of leaves, forming a scintillating floral oval like a Victorian valentine. Intensifying the effect, winter retreats into a daunting black abyss with the muffled flight of a snowy owl passing a stand of birch trees. Warm dappled sunlight and wafting fragrances enhance the startling contrast between eerie darkness and fairytale beauty.

 

Burchfield covered this almost finished painting with a paper flap titled “Bee Hepaticas.” However, this is not a variety of the sweet spring flower that he adored. The word “Bee” refers to a brand of watercolor paper that noted so he could match the surface texture and color if he chose to make additions or alterations.  We now know the intended title for this painting, thanks to the discovery of two sketches in a portfolio Burchfield labeled, “The Fragrance of Spring.” The studies have notations about a “golden ivory halo” around the hepatica cluster and “ground & decayed leaf odors” emanating as striations among the seasoned leaves. Final proof that The Fragrance of Spring embodied Burchfield’s intention to make his paintings truly sensory experiences that tap sight, sound, and smell as motifs that viewers could comprehend, is found in his journal entry for March 27, 1962: “I am going to attempt to paint the odor of hepaticas and the smell of earth under sun-warmed dead leaves. The idea fills my mind with joyous anticipation.”

— Nancy Weekly, 2011