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Roots: Burchfield’s Early Subjects, Themes and Influences

On View Saturday, October 30, 2004–Sunday, May 1, 2005

Artists are often inspired by the environment and experiences of their youth, and Charles E. Burchfield was no exception. Salem, Ohio and other nearby towns and rural sites provided the neighborhood and landscape subjects that he transcribed in realistic and abstracted styles. At times his critique earned him the title of "the Sherwood Anderson artist" because his paintings reflected a similar tenor to Sherwood Anderson’s collection of short stories, Winesburg, Ohio, published in 1919. Burchfield’s paintings, like Anderson’s stories, captured the disillusionment, boredom, and desperation felt by many inhabitants of small-town America during the early twentieth century. Salem residents and people in Clyde, Ohio – where Anderson lived and observed characters for his fiction – took offense at the implication that they were lonely or drab, and criticized the artists. Henry McBride, reviewing Burchfield's Kevorkian Galleries exhibition in New York City in 1920, said: "There is almost nothing in his work but this hatred, and if he lived to be sixty he could not be a more vehement hater." Mary Mowbray-Clarke, who handled his work from her Sunwise Turn Bookshop in Manhattan, saw another side: "Burchfield is one more youth of the new age, with power whose privilege it is to show us our insincerities and sentimentalities while never looking at us at all, only at the world we gave him to grow up in."

Burchfield publicly denied any intention to criticize, although he admitted it in private. Instead, he proclaimed that he had favorable memories of his home town, which is clearly illustrated in the charming and sometimes comical depiction of pastoral calm, quaint houses, and personally nostalgic subjects that more fully portray his work. This exhibition explores both sides of Burchfield’s sentiments of his Ohio roots. Love of the countryside and the patterns and colors of daily life dominate his painting. Experiments with abstraction illustrate the influence of the Cleveland School of Art and Berlin Heights artists, such as Henry Keller and William Sommer. Humor takes the form of animated buildings with exaggerated human features. Drawings encapsulate the notion of beauty in weathered buildings and detailed studies of trees and flowers. An astute witness, Burchfield reveled in finding the joys of everyday living to bring to public attention. Ultimately, reminiscence of boyhood hikes merges with mature reflections on nature’s majesty in a late painting that bridges the span of a lifetime. Through careful observations and interpretation, the irrefutable influence of place and experiences can be seen in Burchfield’s art. Exhibited works were from the collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and on loan from Harriet and Mortimer Spiller and Peter E. and Elizabeth M. Parisi.