Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Eye of God in the Woods, 1949; watercolor on paper, 47 1/2 x 25 1/2 inches; Collection of the Monumenti Musei e Gallerie Pontificie, Vatican City, Rome; Image from the Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives
"Charles Ephraim Burchfield: A War with Faith" by Zoe Fabian
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Charles E. Burchfield, American painter and visionary artist, presents a conundrum of faith. His early years were wrought with melancholy imagery and it comes as no surprise to us that as a teenager Burchfield was at war with organized religion.
To understand where his feelings toward religion came from, we look to his childhood. Burchfield’s father, the son of a Methodist minister, had renounced the orthodoxy. Then, after his father’s untimely death, his widowed mother moved the family to Salem, Ohio where it is said she felt shut-out from the local congregation. It can therefore be deduced that the death of his father and his mother’s feelings of seclusion from the local Presbyterian Church led to Burchfield’s rejection of faith.
Furthermore, it has been said that Burchfield’s acute response and interest in nature was a substitute for his loss of religious faith. It is interesting however, to study how nature and light are often used as symbols of religion. For example, the tree, whether in full bloom, sprouting or barren, represents life, fertility or death. Even Burchfield’s representation of light and movement can be seen as spiritual energy expressing peace and tranquility or perhaps antagonism and damnation. In any case, one can see the human experience through Burchfield’s allegorical representation of flora; nature and light reflecting the multitude of human emotion, memory and one’s quest of divine purpose.
We can come full circle with Burchfield’s quest of faith after comparing Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night to Eye of God in the Woods. Church Bells is a painting permeated by darkness. A steeple looms in the distance, a seemingly dark force that looms over a small town with black rain pouring from the sky. It is easy to feel dread and terror while looking at this imagery from Burchfield’s younger years. In comparison, his “Eye of God”, evokes a sense of speculation in his representation of a gray, somber day. Additionally, there appears to be a brooding force coming from the heavens, yet there is still light that rains down through the gloom; a glimmer of hope because, as quoted in his journal, “the light that puts out our eyes is as darkness to us”.
What is perhaps most ironic, is the current resting place of Burchfield’s “Eye of God in the Woods”. The above image was taken by a visitor to the Vatican who then visited the BPAC and shared the image with the museum staff. Thus, this religiously conflicted genius now has a painting that resides in Rome, Italy. Specifically, Eye of God in the Woods resides at the Monumenti Musei e Gallerie Pontificie in the Vatican City; a religiously governed landlocked, sovereign city-state government led by the Pope.
Consequently, this doubter-believer who concluded, as God once had, “that Paradise meant no people”, rarely painted any. At war with religion as a teenager, and searching for spiritual guidance as an adult, it is easy for one to relate with the symbolic representations found in Burchfield’s paintings.
Zoe Fabian is an art educator and active member in the local Buffalo community. She received her teaching degree from Buffalo State College and regularly volunteers with organizations such as Journey’s End, Grant Street Global Voices and Young Audiences of Western New York. Zoe is currently involved with the Grant Street Global Voices project including the creation of public art and community workshops centered on The Immigrant and Refugee Experience: Yesterday and Today.
Cotter, H. (2010, June 24). Nature, up close and personal.New york times: Art & design. Retrieved from
Wootten, R. (n.d.).The eyes of houses. Retrieved from http://www.burchfieldhomestead.com/eyes.html