Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Summer Solstice (In Memory of the American Chestnut Tree), 1961-66; watercolor on paper, 54 x 60 inches; Image from the Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives

Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Summer Solstice (In Memory of the American Chestnut Tree), 1961-66; watercolor on paper, 54 x 60 inches; Image from the Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives

June 20 Marks the Summer Solstice

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Happy Solstice! The summer solstice occurs once a year at the exact moment when the tilt of the earth brings us closest to the sun. It usually falls on the 21st of June in the northern hemisphere. This year, because it’s a leap year, we are celebrating it on the 20th. On this day and the days that precede and follow it, we have more daylight hours to enjoy than any other time of the year. The solstice also marks the first day of summer.

Charles Burchfield was acutely aware of the changing of the seasons. He made numerous paintings throughout his career that commemorate these transitions. The painting Summer Solstice (In Memory of the American Chestnut Tree), 1961-66 is perhaps the most impressive. In a study for the piece he wrote nostalgically about the summer heat:

The glorious summer noon of boyhood - The luscious droop of June - Boiling horizon - The quivering blue of the distance. The air full of the memories of chicken yard noises - heat waves dancing on the blackened grass stems - out of the white horizon + over the shimmering fields comes the romantic whistle of a locomotive - oh the agonizing beauty of life -

The painting is also a eulogy for a lost giant. The American Chestnut was devastated by a fungus accidently introduced into North America in the first decade of the twentieth century. By 1940, over four billion trees were lost. These trees that once grew to a diameter of up to ten feet can now only grow in shoots from remaining stumps. New hybrid plants and blight resistant strains are being developed, but the massive tree is essentially gone from the American landscape.

In Summer Solstice, Burchfield was driven to inspire reverence and awe. The giant Chestnut tree stands alone in a field, haloed by golden sunlight. In a section added later, dark clouds loom heavily in the sky. A journal entry from 1962 explained the expansion process for that part of the painting:

I added (with clips) 4” of white board, and extended the tree upward. The effect was dramatic. I think I shall have to follow through on this – Only 4” but it seemed as if the heavens were brought into it, and as if, at last I might be able to paint a picture with “Presence of God” in it. Is it too much to hope for?
(Sept. 7, 1962, Vol. 60c pg. 389)

This scene of agonizing beauty brings to mind the nostalgia of childhood and long hot days spent outside while also memorializing loss. It illustrates the beauty of the deciduous forests of Western New York, but it should also remind us how precious they are and inspire us to go out and enjoy them while we can.

—Tullis Johnson
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Tullis Johnson is Archives & Information Resource Manager at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.  He manges the digitization of the Burchfield Penney's Archives including the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation Archives, a collection of more than 24,000 objects from the artist’s studio. The archive includes sketches, studies, clippings and notes that the artist saved throughout his career.  The project will help preserve the fragile objects while making their content available for research. These objects along with other ephemera in the Burchfield Penney Archives create a vivid and rich picture of the artist and his time.

In 2010, Johnson co-curated the exhibition Think About the Medium which focused on Burchfield’s unique use of watercolor. In 2012, with climatologist Stephen Vermette PhD, he co-curated Weather Event which focused on Burchfield’s depictions of the climate south of Lake Erie.  Both exhibitions draw heavily from the archives and offer the viewer deeper insight into the artist’s life.  He also wrote the essay; A Seemingly Idle Diversion: The Doodles of Charles Burchfield for the exhibition catalog for Heatwaves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, curated by Robert Gober.

Johnson is very interested in doing different forms of outreach to introduce Burchfield to younger audiences.  He has done numerous presentations on Charles Burchfield at public events, many focusing on nature and the environment. He works with interns, volunteers, and work study students on a regular basis, hoping to inspire younger people who might be the next generation of Burchfield researchers and scholars.