Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Genesis, 1924; watercolor, 21 3/8 x 30 1/2 inches, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Gift of the Burchfield Foundation, 1975
Nancy Weekly on letter to Rev. Martin Walker, January 13, 1931
Thursday, June 27, 2013
What an unjust monster must be at the head of the Universe who, after “punishing” man mercilessly in his present existence, would consign him to eternal torment just because he did not accept as true the pretensions of a man, who at a certain time and place claimed to be God in human form! The thought is ridiculous. — Charles E. Burchfield, January 1931, posted as part of Charles E. Burchfield in his own words on Thursday, June 27, 2013
In response to John Earshen’s Facebook comment: “Mystic ‘monster’ element is surprising to see.”
This short excerpt from an 11-page letter cannot convey the significance of Burchfield’s spiritual position in January 1931, when he expressed disinterest in joining Rev. Walker’s church. It was written seven years after this painting, Genesis, was created, as well as a very similar godless industrial landscape, View from East Buffalo. In 1924, when he painted these works, Burchfield and his friend J. J. Lankes were collaborating on a number of prints with Biblical subjects. Burchfield’s dark faceless God is reminiscent of Zeus overlooking earth from storm clouds. A letter to J.J. dated Feb. 7, 1924, explains some of his intentions for this imagery:
As to making Biblical illustrations contemporary I think in some cases it is O.K. and as Ecclesiastes or Jeremiah — Genesis however is primeval to me. I was thinking of your Jeremiah raising his hands to heaven with the suggestion of factory smoke in the background – Why not? We have our Jeremiahs too & if anything ought to create a Jeremiah to modern industrialism. Instead of an ancient Hebrew you could have a Lincolnesque or Whitmanesque figure. Probably contemporary commentators would laugh at it for its lack of Biblical atmosphere but wot the ell do they count. I think your suggestion a good one.
As the for quote, which was taken out of context, might make a little more sense with what immediately preceded it:
Fourth – I have my own time and method of worshipping and making my peace with the Infinite – a matter too sacred to be discussed. As for the punishment of sins, so-called, you know as well as I, that no one anywhere at any time whether “believer” or “unbeliever” ever goes unpunished a single moment after he commits a misdeed. His punishment begins immediately and in lots of cases lasts all his life, and more than that we are constantly being punished for the sins of our forefathers, over which he [we] have no control. And yet you talk of eternal punishment!
Finally, I would offer one of the sentences that follow the excerpt that might suffice as a contextualizing summary to Burchfield’s nature-based spirituality:
“A crow cawing over some wide marsh and woodland waste fills me with more love for my Creator than all the hymns in Christendom could ever do.”
Head of Collections & Charles Cary Rumsey Curator
Nancy Weekly is the Head of Collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey Curator for the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the world’s only museum dedicated to American watercolor master Charles E. Burchfield and artists of the Buffalo Niagara region. She also serves as an adjunct lecturer in Museum Studies for the Department of History and Social Studies Education at Buffalo State College.