Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), An April Mood, 1946-1955; watercolor and charcoal on joined paper, 40 x 58 inches; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase, with partial funds from Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence A. Fleischman, 55.39
Nancy Weekly on An April Mood
Friday, March 29, 2013
In 1993, for the exhibition catalog Charles E. Burchfield: The Sacred Woods, I wrote:
An April Mood, 1946–55, represents a similar Christian subject that aspires less to the liturgical than to the sublime [than in Glory to God (1953).
On April 16, 1949 Burchfield recorded in his journal:
Working on ‘Good Friday Mood’ with great gusto and assurance. A bitter mood. (I think I shall give it a non-committal title such as ‘April Mood’ –). At the end of the day asked B [Bertha] out to see it. She liked it—thought it was almost frightening.
In one reading, the three monstrous, thorny, hulking trees in An April Mood represents the three crosses at the crucifixion of Jesus, or represent the Christian Trinity of God, Son, and Holy Ghost. Yet Burchfield had previously painted three trees in a more resplendent manner that suggests the Three Graces of ancient mythology. His most famous painting of this motif is The Three Trees, 1931-46. Burchfield visited these stately elms, often considered a landmark in Salem, Ohio. Two were felled by a tornado in 1925, and the remaining one died before he painted this homage. The Three Trees was commissioned by a classmate of the artist’s mother, Alice Burchfield, as a memorial to the woman’s father and in remembrance of her close friend. Burchfield was pleased that the woman wanted to honor his mother, so he tied his boyhood memories to “the idea…that I’ve repeatedly tried to express—and that’s the presence of God in Nature.”
Today, looking closely at the painting, I would alter that opinion based on the observation that there aren’t three trees on the left side of the painting; there are five.
Let me explain. Three large, ravaged trees stand close to the swampy pond; their wide trunks and craggy limbs form a network of jagged lines across the dark, stormy sky. But a fourth large, hollowed out tree stands behind the two on the left side. Its blacked interior contains an inverted crescent, which was signified “Melancholy” and “Sadness” in his 1917 Convention for Abstract Thoughts. Burchfield loved to paint contrasts, so as a counterpoint to the shadowy blasted tree is a young flowering tree coming to life behind, and to the right side, of the tallest tree. White flowers bloom on a small batch of land surrounded by rocks. They look like a Snowdrop and what is commonly called Star of Bethlehem. Grasses emerge on foreground hillocks in subtle shades of green and yellow. These could, of course, be Christian symbols for life after death, signifying Christ emerging from the tomb; but they also serve as literal signs, as well as metaphors, for the change of seasons. Behind it, crows arrive over the right horizon through shafts of white light. In the far distance, in the center, the sound of spring peepers begins to fill the air; their calls echoing among another stand of trees. Burchfield left it up to each viewer to decide what significance to derive from this painting he titled An April Mood.
Nancy Weekly is head of collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey curator at the Burchfield Penney.
This painting is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City as part of American Legends: From Calder to O'Keeffe which opened on December 22, 2012 and is ongoing. Learn more at www.Whitney.org.