Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Rainy Night, 1929-1930; Watercolor over graphite, 30 x 42 inches; The San Diego Museum of Art, Gift of Anne R. and Amy Putnam, 1939:97
The Sites of a City: Charles Burchfield's Buffalo
This exhibition and film were part of a cooperative Bicentennial Project, Buffalo Neighborhoods: Parts of a Living City
On View Friday, September 3–Sunday, October 31, 1976
“Charles Burchfield was a young man of 28 when he came to Buffalo in the fall of 1921 to help design wallpaper for the prestigious Birge Wallpaper Company on Niagara and Maryland Streets. Born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, Burchfield had grown up in the small town of Salem, Ohio, where he had been valedictorian of his high school graduating class. From 1912 to 1916 he studied at the Cleveland School of Art on a small scholarship. After a brief stint of further study in New York and a tour of duty in the camouflage section of the army, he returned to Salem, where he fell in love. Wanting to get married and aware of the limited career opportunities in a small town, he applied to the Birge Company.
When he was hired, Burchfield rented a room in the lower West Side, at 124 Whitney near Virginia Street, in a neighborhood whose houses may have reminded him of the 19th century houses of his home town. Burchfield’s room was only a short walk from the Birge Company. During his walks to and from the plant and on his rambles throughout the area after work, he was captivated by the subjects he saw to paint.
Always Burchfield was deeply conscious of the seasons and the weather. The out-of-doors, therefore, permeates much of his work.
Burchfield also felt that both music and literature had been a larger influence on his painting than the work of other artists. Perhaps this is why he was never really identified with any one group of painters. More important to him were Beethoven and Sibelius, some Russian authors such as Maxim Gorki and certain American realistic writers of the 1920’s, like Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, and Sinclair Lewis.
The subjects of Burchfield’s first Buffalo watercolors spoked out, wheel-like, from the wallpaper company. Two blocks south of the company on Niagara Street between Carolina and Georgia, another streetscape interested him. On the site now stands designer Paul Rudolph’s Shoreline Apartments. The houses that stood on this spot were the subject of perhaps Burchfield’s most famous picture, Promenade.
Here, as in others of his pictures of houses, Burchfield uses elongation and distortion to help create a lonely mood and to humanize his buildings. Like Edgar Allan Poe in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Burchfield animates his houses by using windows to suggest eyes. Burchfield said of his own drawing of The House with the Astonished Face [still standing on Mariner near Virginia]: “There were, and still are, many houses like this in Buffalo. Depending on the lighting or time of day, the house shows expression of various moods.”
The houses and buildings Burchfield painted in Buffalo seemed to evoke for him memories of his boyhood in Ohio, of the train-whistle lonely Ohio towns he once knew. His relation to these towns was like that of Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio, a book that left a deep impression on him. The railroads and bridges and harbor scenes he painted in Buffalo also may have reminded him of Ohio and helped him to reach back into a more secure time in the past.
The nature fantasies of the later part of his life, before his death in 1967, may likewise have been related to outdoor boyhood experiences, for an early ambition of his was to be a botanist.
Loneliness, isolation, and a kind of stark nostalgia are recurring themes in Burchfield’s work. Theses moods are partially created by death symbols, such as the crows, the dead trees, the ominous cloud-shapes, and the vacant eye-like windows of his often decaying houses.
Parallel to his death awareness is a very strong consciousness for life—a deeply felt sensitivity to a primitive life force bursting with a vitality that animates the universe. This force is dazzlingly orchestrated by many of his nature fantasies. Sometimes these seemingly conflicting forces come together awesomely in a master Burchfield work, such as Orion in Winter.”
-Austin M. Fox, from The Sites of a City Pamphlet.
This exhibition comprised:
“A 30-minute color film, The Sites of a City: Charles Burchfield’s Buffalo, This film will show not only many of the watercolors that Burchfield painted of Buffalo neighborhoods, but also the sites as they look today. In those twenty years (1922-42) Burchfield ranged out from the Lower West Side, painting scenes on the West Side including Allentown, the Harbor, Downtown, the East Side, and South Park. These pictures now hang in prestigious art galleries and private collections throughout the country. A number are being lent for a special exhibition of Burchfield’s Buffalo work, to open at the Burchfield Center in September. For example, The Whitney Museum is lending Market at Christmas Time, the old Washington Street- Chippewa Market, and Ice Glare, Clinton and Lord Streets. At the Burchfield Center, SUCB 1300 Elmwood Ave., September 3 through October 31.”
-from Buffalo Neighborhoods: Parts of a Living City exhibition outline.