Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), December Storm, 1941-1960; watercolor on joined paper mounted on board, 40 1/2 x 56 inches, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Andrews, 1964/1966

Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), December Storm, 1941-1960; watercolor on joined paper mounted on board, 40 1/2 x 56 inches, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Andrews, 1964/1966

50 Years of December Storm by Nancy Weekly

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

In 2014, the Burchfield Penney Art Center is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the significant gift made by philanthropists Peter C. and Joan Andrews of Charles E. Burchfield’s masterwork, December Storm, to Buffalo State College in 1964.  This generous donation became the cornerstone of the museum’s collection when the Charles Burchfield Center was inaugurated two years later on December 9, 1966.

December Storm depicts sunlight bursting through storm clouds hovering over houses visible from Burchfield’s backyard in Gardenville, New York.  It also represents a memory of a savage winter storm during childhood, recalled during an equally ferocious storm in December 1941.  Fortuitously Burchfield began the painting on December 6th, the day before the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor, when he had felt that “a violent storm…was about to break upon us.” He wrote in his Journals on December 6, 1941 about the mounting storm with “a strong wind from the west — driving great massive clouds before it.…The sun breaking thru at times, sending down shafts of light —” It reminded him of a similar storm “of the time long ago” (between 1912 and 1916) “when in the same month, I observed this phenomenon from the window of the art school and compared it to a great rim-less wheel, revolving hugely thru the great black storm sky)—” He associated it with a biblical story, saying, “One can imagine Ezekiel, eyeing this same effect, over-awed by its power and majesty —”

“Hastily” he gathered painting supplies and started to paint in his backyard, using his neighbors’ houses and backyard buildings as his “foil, or foreground,” to the dramatic sky.  He “painted all day with vigor and forcefulness” undeterred by the wintry conditions, which only invigorated him. He wrote, “at times snow fell, and towards the last, my sponge & water froze.  What unalloyed happiness there is in working under such conditions! — ‘Battling the elements,’ — the painting takes on a character it could not have under milder conditions.”

The next day, December 7, while attending a Philharmonic concert, Burchfield learned during the intermission about “news of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Hawaii), The Philippines, Hong Kong etc.,” admitting that it was “impossible to take in its significance at once).” He found it difficult to return to the painting until years later because of its association with the tragedy. Nevertheless, during the depressing events of World War II, Burchfield found reassurance in the music of Sibelius and Beethoven that the world would return to peace and faith in God.  He discounted the pessimistic work of other artists, recommending that each artist should strive to emulate the power and significance of such works as Beethoven's 5th Symphony and "the Sibelius 5th Symphony (an act of Faith)," which was contemporaneous with the World War I.  Spiritually rich, December Storm symbolizes hope in the face of World War.

Over the ensuing years, Burchfield made studies of details to develop in the painting. On November 11, 1946, he removed the watercolor December Storm from its original mount and enlarged it; but put it aside before making major changes. Stimulated by the light and weather conditions in December 1958, he “worked steadily and with vigor on it until 4:30 when the light faded,” noting, “I am growing more & more excited about it.” Once again the painting went back into storage in his studio, until he made the concluding alterations to finish the painting in 1960.

Late in his career, Burchfield considered himself to be a romantic painter.  Following in the tradition of 19th-century Northern European romantic landscape painters such as Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), Burchfield painted images that increasingly came to represent the philosophic challenges of the individual confronted by, and in awe of, the incomprehensible immensity of the universe.  Burchfield also embraced the principles of pantheism, in which God is identified with nature—a belief that was widely accepted in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  As one of Burchfield’s most profound paintings, December Storm can be read as an allegory of war, the power of nature, the redemptive glory of spiritual beliefs,, and a visual equivalent to musical masterworks.

In April 1963, the Upton Hall Gallery at the State University College at Buffalo, (as it was called then) presented one of the most significant exhibitions of Burchfield’s career. December Storm was one of 46 major works presented in Charles Burchfield: Recent Paintings. It had been lent by the Rehn Gallery in New York. Joan and Peter Andrews quickly acquired the painting. After living with it for more than a year, they decided to share it with the public by donating it to the College—a very generous gesture that would stimulate the creation of a museum named after the artist. Burchfield was positively thrilled by the Andrews’ donation and celebratory dinner, writing in his Journals on November 24, 1964:

Dinner at the College in honor of myself and Peter Andrews (who has donated my “December Storm” to the College — which is the hope of all concerned will be the nucleus of a “Burchfield Center” at Buffalo — Another warmly human affair — After the unveiling — Ken Winebrenner read aloud his foreword to the catalogue of my show in 1963 at the college — while slides (in color) were projected onto a screen — I was in a state of euphoria.

The Burchfield Penney Art Center now celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of this momentous gift. Because of the generosity of Joan and Peter Andrews, December Storm became the first painting for the collection of the Charles Burchfield Center when was inaugurated on December 9, 1966. After cutting the ribbon to launch the new museum officially, Burchfield donated seven studies for December Storm that underpin the significance of the painting and its symbolism, as well as highlight the idea of building the collection together. The Burchfield Penney now has the world’s largest collection of Burchfield’s art and archives, including more than 25,000 studies in addition to paintings, drawings, prints, and wallpapers.

Nancy Weekly, head of collections / Charles Cary Rumsey Curator