Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Over the Porch Roof, 1933-37; watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 inches; in a vintage Burchfield frame; Promised Bequest Gift of Mrs. Roy W. Doolittle, Jr.
Charles E. Burchfield: Over the Porch Roof
On View Friday, March 9–Sunday, July 1, 2012
Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967) painted Over the Porch Roof (1933-37) from an upstairs bedroom window to preserve early glimmers of approaching spring: “A day in March when the first hint of green in the grass and ruddy color in the trees can be seen.” By grounding the view point from his own home, Burchfield presented not only a geometrically interesting composition and view to the outer world; but he also suggests the sense of comfort that home represented for him. He started this technique of painting views from his home when he was maturing in Salem, Ohio, from 1916 through 1920.
Essay by Nancy Weekly, Head of Collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey Curator
Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) painted Over the Porch Roof (1933-37) from an upstairs bedroom window to preserve early glimmers of approaching spring.By grounding the view point from his own home, Burchfield presented not only a geometrically interesting composition and view to the outer world; but he also suggested the sense of comfort that home represented for him. He started this technique of painting views from his home when he was maturing in Salem, Ohio, from 1916 through 1920. It became a way that he mediated the landscape to represent not only what was familiar to him personally, but what many other Americans would experience.
In his last journal entry for 1932, just months before he painted Over the Porch Roof, Burchfield wrote:
It is twilight — I sit by the studio window and look out on the bleak barren back lots, above which is the cold gray sky. A few scattered flakes fall aimlessly — they do not seem to know where to go. Now enough have fallen to give the dead grass a faintly silver tone – A great love for the humble scene outside fills my heart.1
His love for nature’s transformation of an unsightly, mundane scene into something wonderful was aided by the sense of comfort afforded by his studio perspective. The window framed his view, creating a picture of subtle beauty. As peaceful and poignant as a coating of glittering snow can be in stirring emotions, a raging blizzard could also set his heart pumping. Burchfield’s first entry for 1933 describes a walk with his dog, Skippy, through “a howling shrieking void,” cutting across fields and walking between rows of freight cars to “escape some of the storm’s violence.” He described it as “a rare delight to me, for somehow or other it is long since I have given myself to the elements so wholly.”2
Although sidelined by lumbago, Burchfield gathered inspiration in 1933 through the radio and his records which brought cherished music to his ears. Sometimes he indulged in days devoted entirely to music, such as March 12th when a piano concerto by Mozart sounded “beautiful in its childlike simplicity” and then Sibelius’ tone poem, “The Swan of Tuonela,” evoked “infinite melancholy and sadness…in all its original beauty.” He admitted that when he first listened to the Sixth Symphony of Sibelius much of its complexity “eluded” him, “but it was full of strange & intricate beauty – especially the last movement.” Finally, he found much of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss (a piece made memorable to later generations in the film, “2001: A Space Odyssey”) to be both “otherworldly” and “very beautiful.”3 The variety of his musical tastes might be seen as a counterpoint to the evolution of paintings from small symbolic landscapes that reflect an imaginary vision and tease the senses to larger, denser, more realistic, yet still poetic, views of the world around him. Slowly his subject matter shifted from northeastern Ohio (around Salem and Cleveland) to western New York (around Gardenville and Buffalo) and vast, wooded areas south of the city, such as Chestnut Ridge, Gowanda, Zoar Valley, and upper Pennsylvania. He did not yearn to travel to exotic, faraway places. Nature’s infinite details that surrounded him near home were plenty to fire his imagination.
Over the Porch Roof was started when the spring season was alleviating winter’s frozen stagnation. The painting is filled with the landscape’s warm taupes, silvery grays, and muted greens, plus rain puddles, diffused light, and both leafless and budding trees. The scene may have been mentally recorded on March 31st when Burchfield noted “the first warm spring rain – what a sublime thing it is — like the softening of the earth, one expands and swells — old troubles & cares vanish, the spirit is released — It is a strangely agonizing experience.”4 These words reflect the description that he inscribed on the back of the painting once it was finished four years later: “A day in March when the first hint of green in the grass and ruddy color in the trees can be seen.” Although he started this vision of spring’s emergence in March, other events intervened before he could complete it. He concentrated on yard chores while appreciating the sights, sounds and smells of the environment around him. In April he took several sketching trips in the woods, listened to radio concerts, such as Toscanini’s moving concert of Beethoven’s Fourth and Third Symphonies, worked on A March Day in the Gowanda Hills which he had started in 1926, celebrated his fortieth birthday on the 9th, transplanted hepaticas from the woods to his home garden, and took two trips to Gowanda to start a new painting of the canyon.
Historically, the spring of 1933 was a time of nascent optimism in America. A new era was beginning. On March 4, 1933, in his inaugural speech, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt encouraged a nation still reeling from the austere effects of the Depression with his memorial phrase: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” However in Europe, Adolf Hitler, who was appointed to Chancellor of Germany in January, escalated his Nazi agenda of repression and destruction, so by March 23rd had become dictator. Yet these extreme contrasts didn’t factor into Burchfield’s journals. Instead, personal tragedy silenced him. On June 13th, his sister Frances, who was thirteen years his elder, died. She was the first of his five siblings to pass away. As difficult as that news was, even more misfortune came on its heels. Burchfield’s mother, Alice, died on June 23rd. After nearly four month’s absence from writing, the artist finally expressed some of what he remembered from that sorrowful period:
On the morning of June 23 at 7:30 Mother died, just nine days after Frances. Evening of fading hope had merged into a night of black despair. At four o’clock, as I sat holding her hand and wrist in which the pulse was steadily growing weaker, all the robins seemed to go mad with singing at the same moment, a little later a red-bird came, and sang from a wire out front clear and strong —
It is Sunday evening. We are standing in the cemetery by the newly disturbed ground. Some friend has arranged the flowers on both the graves, a thought that is like a pressure of a hand. The mournful church bells that used in childhood to frighten me, have died away into silence, and a soft gentle rain begins to fall.
They are gone; and even now, the vain regrets outweigh the pleasant memories.5
In the years that followed, Frank Rehn was instrumental in promoting Burchfield’s art here and abroad. Rehn had started representing Burchfield in his Fifth Avenue gallery in New York in September 1929, not long after he started representing Edward Hopper. In November 1933, a solo exhibition of Burchfield’s early watercolors was presented at the then-named Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, DC. One of the rare European showings of his work occurred in May 1934, when he was included in the 19th International Biennial Art Exhibition in Venice, Italy. Back home, the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University exhibited his watercolor and drawings with those of his contemporaries, Charles Sheeler and Edward Hopper in December. Already a regular participant in the Carnegie Institute’s exhibitions in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Burchfield was awarded the second prize for his painting The Shed in the Swamp (1933-34) at The 1935 International Exhibition of Paintings. That same year, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller donated several of his works to The Museum of Modern Art, where he had been honored with a solo exhibition of his early paintings in 1930, shortly after it opened.
A perfect measure of his wide-spread, popular appeal was Life magazine’s illustrated article, “Burchfield’s America,” which literally brought him to homes across the country in December 1936. People could see him painting, as well as how he lived like an ordinary, middle class citizen. Earlier in the year Fortune magazine commissioned paintings of the railroad yards and repair shops at Altoona and Harrisburg, which were reproduced as dynamic illustrations in December for the dull sounding article “Pennsylvania Railroad: I.” Fortune’s second commission in October 1937 resulted in an illustration of staggeringly monolithic walls of brilliant yellow sulphur vats being processed for shipment in Texas, 70 miles from Houston. In retrospect, Burchfield wrote: “Their size & extent seems incredible still—1200 feet long, 120 feet wide & 45 to 50 feet high.”6 Fortune’s commissioned illustrations of coal mining operations near Huntington, West Virginia, however, were not published despite harrowing trips underground that yielded images of jagged coal walls that the project supervisor thought splendid.
So what brought Burchfield to finish Over the Porch Roof in March? It was an invigorating time of year. When he was 28 he said, “I would like to be the embodiment of March — both in life & art—.”7 March was unpredictable, ever changing, thrashing from winter to spring. On the 17th he recorded: “A strong S.W. wind blows the sky clear about noon and the snow begins to melt like magic. A riotous vigorous day, true March weather–” Views from his home describe what he painted before, yet seemed fresh and different:
At sundown the sidewalk pools show spreading spears of ice, and the bushes & trees are turned to golden tongues of fire against the deep blue sky. I am never prepared for such a wonderful season—it seems always new and always intoxicating—8
Stimulated, he set out the next day to the “Snow-light Woods” in East Aurora with his sketching paraphernalia and started tramping through the trees, but snowfall became too heavy for him to produce any work outdoors. Instead, he returned to his car, watched the snow intensify and took a second hike in the woods before driving home. Later, while taking his daily walk to the post office, he heard a crow caw and remarked: “The soft grey soggy sky [and] raw wet trees were transformed and I felt a power in myself, and a confidence and independence — I am alone in the world, in my art—and it was good.”9 Now he had the conviction to finish paintings he started years earlier with greater self-assurance that he could communicate both his literal vision and his inner essence. Thus, on March 22, 1937, which was “a clear brisk day” in which he saw the first robin of the season, Burchfield “worked all afternoon on the view from B’s bedroom, and brought it along pretty well to completion —”10 What modest notes sum up years of work! What significance lies in the perspective from Bertha’s room? Are the two main trees—one with encapsulated leaf buds and the other bare—reaching out to one another? The geometry of the painting asserts a human presence. The foreground triangle of roof shingles bisects horizontal strata of sky, village, grass, soil, pavement and water. The front path connects the sidewalk with the house, creating a smaller triangle of earth which the two larger trees share. Might these be the geometrical elements of human existence in nature—linking Charles and Bertha Burchfield as much as they link all people to the land in a beautiful, shimmering rite of spring?
So often in his paintings Burchfield provided a ground-level perspective, even exaggerating scale so one might feel shrunken to the size of an insect gazing through towering blades of grass and wild flowers toward gigantic trees and limitless sky. Occasionally, though, he took advantage of an elevated view—from an upstairs window or bridge, field promontory or canyon bluff. In early works dating to 1916, second floor views from the safety of his home in Salem combined his neighbors’ small domiciles with a careful study of seasonal effects of weather and time of day. Burchfield attempted to capture different lighting effects, as well as wind, precipitation, and ambient sounds. Unlike Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet, whose series of the River Thames and Rouen Cathedral illustrated infinite atmospheric shifts in color and light, Burchfield produced watercolors that were flatter and more stylistic in design, having admired the work of Japanese printmakers Hokusai and Hiroshige. Burchfield’s scale differential helped to convey his powerful emotional reactions to the formidable forces of nature.
Far more ambitious works started in the 1920s, such as Sunburst (1929-31) andMarch Day at Gowanda, (1926-33), depict panoramic views of sheer beauty and grandeur. These unspoiled vistas celebrate a primordial world that represented Burchfield’s ideals for a timeless, mystical realm that held great spiritual significance. They are among his equivalents to 19th-century Hudson River School paintings, while also reflecting his regard for the still untamed American frontier. On the other hand, even the city of Buffalo during the 1930s, provided interesting views. Ice Glare (1931-33), for example, was painted from an incline near a railroad trestle by the corner of Clinton Street and Lord Street, affording a dynamic play of light and shadow in the skewed wintry scene. It was so popular that a color collotype poster was produced in 1939 by Charles Boni and Arthur Jaffé for “Living American Art” with Burchfield’s permission.
The Parade (1932-34), though not painted from an elevated site, still provides an interesting perspective. The subject, made during the Depression, is “a communist unemployment parade” that passed by the bus stop where Charles and Bertha Burchfield had arrived in Buffalo from their home in Gardenville. It is one of few overtly political images he painted. In it, mounted policemen watch lines of marching men and women from under a massive bridge, its cracked concrete signifying the fractured social structure that parallels the era’s economic despair. Here the perspective is similar to looking through binoculars backwards—the massive bridge arches with converging, shadowed walls focus our sight toward two apertures that reveal day-lit, though barely discernible, marchers lining the streets.
Birch Tree and Houses, also known as White Pine and Birch, is a second painting from 1937 that Burchfield painted from an upstairs window. This time he chose a view toward the back, along the yard’s side perimeter of trees. Again he pairs dominant trees; this time, a paper birch—an autobiographical symbol—contrasts with a white pine—an evergreen associated with virgin forests throughout the northeast. The trees dominate the painting despite a jumble of angles provided by parts of a pyramidal roof top, angular shed roof, two-storied house and vine-covered garage. The white birch tree looks like it is growing from the highest point of the roof, as if home and tree were one entity, such as a mythological creature in which man and beast are joined. Burchfield seems to suggest that from his sanctuary at home he can still merge with nature.
Many times more would Burchfield paint views from upstairs windows, prominently placing trees in juxtaposition with his home and adjoining yards. In 1940 he painted Winter Rain from the East, looking up Clinton Street from his bedroom, and The Sky Beyond, another western view that focused on “the garage next door…& beyond” to a tumultuous sky. In The Sky Beyond, a brooding, angry tone dominates a patchwork of gray patterns: floating rain or snow-filled clouds, scraggly vines on the austere black-windowed garage, and weathered clapboard on a taller two-story structure. The two buildings are connected by a diagonal line of wispy tree limbs. A bleak message reverberates from this inhospitable place during the early period of World War II.
Importantly, Ailanthus Branch in Winter, painted in 1946, can be interpreted as a personal statement about religious conversion. As he noted, it is a “view from left rear bedroom, from back window– thru ailanthus branches & over garage roof.”11 Having recently joined his wife’s church after decades of agnosticism, Burchfield likely knew that the ailanthus was called the “Tree of Heaven,”12 so he symbolically portrayed the dormant tree as a protective entity reaching skyward above his home. Ironically, the ailanthus is considered undesirable by many people; its flowers and foliage have a “disagreeable odor,” its pollen can cause allergic reactions, its poisonous roots break into drain pipes and wells, and it crowds out other, more refined plants.13 Nevertheless, no plant held a lowly status for the artist. He championed all plants, defending the beauty of prevalent, invasive species that most people consider noxious weeds, such as dandelions and thistles. He used them as symbols for his personal aesthetics and philosophy that revered nature over all.
Early Spring (1953) revisits a western view toward the house with a green tiled roof from his bedroom window. A stately birch tree dominates the right side, overlooking snow-dappled lawns softened by lavender-blue shadows cast by various trees. The Golden Glow of Summer (1964) portrays warm summer breezes tossing the leaves in upper tree branches. Bold paint strokes, undulating cadmium and lavender air currents, green and black outlined leaves, blocky shadows on the bark, and pure white air between the branches animate the tree canopy situated beyond a gray shingled roof. Summer, the season of desire, overshadows the old, weathered structure. This is a summer filled with unparalleled warmth and lushness. While Over the Porch Roof quietly announces the arrival of spring with a focused attention to detail and a serene palette; The Golden Glow of Summer sings rapturously of a life well lived, when memories are more powerful than the moment. Yet both speak of their time and place in Burchfield’s life and his observant response to the signifiers that relate to us all.
1 Charles E. Burchfield, Journals, Vol. 38, Dec. 9, 1932, p. 77.
2 Charles E. Burchfield, Journals, Vol. 38, Feb. 9, 1933, p. 77.
3 Charles E. Burchfield, Journals, Vol. 38, Mar. 12, 1933, pp. 78-79.
4 Charles E. Burchfield, Journals, Vol. 38, Mar. 31, 1933, p. 80.
5 Charles E. Burchfield, Journals, Vol. 38, Aug. 7, 1933, p. 83.
6 Charles E. Burchfield, Journals, Vol. 40, Oct. 25, 1937, recalling Oct. 11, 1937, p. 59.
7 Charles E. Burchfield, Journals, Vol. 35, Mar. 12, 1922, p. 45.
8 Charles E. Burchfield, Journals, Vol. 40, Mar. 17, 1937, p. 39.
9 Charles E. Burchfield, Journals, Vol. 40, Mar. 18, 1937, p. 40.
10 Charles Burchfield, Journals, Vol. 40, March 22, 1937, p. 41.
11 Charles E. Burchfield, Journals, Vol. 46, January 30, 1946, p. 89.
12 The Audubon Society, Field Guide to North American Trees, Eastern Region,
New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1980, 1992 edition., p. 539.
13 Ibid., p. 540.