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Charles Burchfeld: Weather Event is featured in Weatherwise magazine

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Wind, Sunshine and Sky: Meteorologist’s Interpretation of Charles E. Burchfield’s Watercolors by Stephen Vermette and Tullis Johnson n the March / April 2014 issue of Weatherwise.  More at

Charles E. Burchfield wrote, “To me, the artist, interested chiefly in weather—all weather is beautiful and full of powerful emotion.…” It is this beauty and emotion that powers the watercolors of Charles E. Burchfield. A naturalist who was schooled on the works of Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, his paintings reflect the simplicity of the local countryside, and are best known for imaginative, stylized landscapes and rural scenes. And whether purposeful or as a backdrop, many of his watercolors depict weather, changes in seasons, and the climate of the region south of Lake Erie where he spent most of his life. In 1914, Burchfield wrote, “I find no sympathetic beauty in the sky I have not lived under.”

So, just as climatology is defined as the aggregate weather within a region, the watercolors and sketches of Burchfield, as chronicled in more than 50 years of his writings, drawings, and paintings, are themselves weather events, the aggregate of which characterizes the region’s climatology. His works are truly “… a journal of the wind, sunshine, and sky.”

Burchfield (1893-1967) was born in Ashtabula, Ohio, but spent most of his youth in Salem, in the northeastern part of the state. He attended the Cleveland School of Art from 1912-1916 and studied with Henry G. Keller, Frank N. Wilcox, and William J. Eastman. A short stint in the army (1918-1919) had him working on camouflage designs. Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1921 to work as a designer for a wallpaper company, and he eventually settled in Gardenville (a suburb of Buffalo) where he lived until the end of his life. Leaving the wallpaper business behind at the onset of the Great Depression, he emerged as one of the most accomplished and popular American artists of his generation. Burchfield gained acclaim through inclusion in prestigious national exhibitions, and he received numerous awards. In December 1936, Life Magazine declared him “one of America’s 10 greatest painters” in its article “Burchfield’s America.” His artistic achievements were honored by the inauguration of the Charles E. Burchfield Center at the State University of New York, Buffalo, on December 9, 1966.

President Lyndon B. Johnson eulogized the artist in a letter dated November 14, 1967, saying “[Burchfield] was artist to America.” The key to interpreting and appreciating “weather” in Burchfield’s world of watercolors is that the artist draws on more than the visible palette to illustrate what is “present.” In 1961, Burchfield wrote, “An artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him.” Sensory experiences and abstract emotions are made visible through the addition of halos and auras, various cartoon-like squiggly lines, and semi-abstract symbols that catalogue emotions which Burchfield referred to as “conventions for abstract thought.” The depiction of a hot summer’s day is not complete without the chirp of crickets and katydids or the trill of the cicada. While some have argued that these emotions are projections of the artist’s state of mind at the time of his painting, it can also be argued that these emotions are an expected natural response brought on by what is present. A weather enthusiast will recognize that weather events bring on both visual and emotional responses. Burchfield has managed to combine both in his watercolors. The challenge in interpreting Burchfield’s work is to not limit oneself to the visual.


The bright colors in Wind Blown Asters especially the yellows, convey a bright, sun-filled, but windy, day. Wild asters are primarily known to bloom in late summer or autumn. Aside from the clouds stretching with the wind and the bent lone tree, Burchfield provides a view of the wind from the perspective of the grasses and flowers. The “eyes” in the field convey a sense of surprise or a sense of “hanging-on.” The Monarch butterfly, partly hidden among the asters, is buried in the business of taking in the flowers’ nectar and pollinating next year’s plants prior to migrating south. In meteorology, wind is often seen as a sign for change. In the case of this painting, wind may convey the oncoming change of seasons for both the asters and the butterfly.


November Storm
portrays a time caught “in between.” The orange-red autumn colors are gone, seen in the painting as only a few relic leaves caught in the season’s detritus. The sepia hues convey a sense of aging, of times past. The winter snows have not yet come to compact the small vegetation and grasses flat to the ground, and to blanket the scene with a white softness. The “now” is a strong and bitter cold wind (as cold as any winter’s day) that causes the ghostly stalks and grasses of last season’s growth to sway. The tree is gnarled and weathered—a witness to November storms of the past. The winds appear to ride up the trunk of the tree; the rhythmic brush strokes convey a rhythmic howling sound emanating from the tree. The tree offers no shelter to the living, as it might shelter one from wind, rain, or sun in other seasons. The sky itself evokes turmoil and darkness, and conjures up a ghostly emotion of fear. This is the type of weather that offers no shelter, where the cold and wind cuts through an individual like a sharp knife. The calendar says it is not yet winter, but the scene and one’s senses say otherwise.


Fireflies and Lightning
evokes a warm, humid night. There appears a general shimmer in the trees, clouds, and ground. The heat lightning, silent due to its distance, conveys the sense of warmth. Fireflies tend to prefer warm and wet weather. In their worm stage, the fireflies hibernate in the soil or the bark of trees all winter. Now in their adult stage, the evening is an awakening to warmth. Fireflies, also referred to as lightning bugs, are most active and thus visible on calm nights. The lack of wind, the thunder-less lightning, and the silent blinking of the fireflies all convey a sense of calm and warmth, evoking the quiet before the approaching storm.