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Artist Charles Burchfield Gets the Weather Right in the Wall Street Journal

Thursday, August 17, 2017

By Susan Delson

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Like everyone else, Charles Burchfield couldn’t do much about the weather. But he could paint it—which he did, gloriously, imaginatively and, according to Stephen Vermette, quite accurately.

Dr. Vermette, a professor at Buffalo State College, is the rare climatologist who has also co-curated an art exhibition: “Charles E. Burchfield: Weather Event,” opening Sept. 16 at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, N.J.

Burchfield (1893–1967) was “one of the great visionary modern artists of the 20th century,” said Montclair’s chief curator, Gail Stavitsky. He was also a link between 19th-century naturalists like Henry David Thoreau and the modern environmental movement, said the show’s other co-curator, Tullis Johnson of the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State, where the exhibition originated. Drawn almost entirely from the center’s collections, the show’s 40-some watercolors, sketches and other works reflect both the visionary quality of Burchfield’s art and his precision in depicting meteorological phenomena.

Raised in Salem, Ohio, in the eastern part of the state, Burchfield studied at the Cleveland School of Art before briefly serving in the Army—where he designed camouflage for tanks and other objects—in 1918. He painted and sketched throughout the late 1910s, depicting nature and weather in an outpouring of detailed, imaginative landscapes.

In 1921 he moved to Buffalo, N.Y. There Burchfield worked as a wallpaper designer before quitting in 1929 to paint full-time, in a style that reflected the rise of realism in the Depression era. Along with his friend Edward Hopper, he quickly established a reputation as an interpreter of American life, with paintings that depicted downtown Buffalo, industrial scenes and the like. In 1936, Life magazine named Burchfield one of America’s 10 greatest painters.

A few years earlier, in 1930, the newly established Museum of Modern Art gave Burchfield a show—its first one-person exhibition since opening the previous November. But the art that caught MoMA director Alfred Barr’s eye was his earlier landscapes—his most modern work up to that point, said Dr. Stavitsky. In the mid-1940s Burchfield returned to the themes of that earlier work, continuing to explore landscape, nature and weather until his death in 1967. Those bookended chapters of his creative life are the basis of “Weather Event.”

Loosely chronological, the show opens with a sustained look at Burchfield’s youthful output in Salem before jumping to the later years in Buffalo. Within those two sections, the works are grouped by theme—cloud studies, seasonal transitions, haloed moons and more. The accompanying wall and label texts highlight not only art-related themes but meteorological aspects as well.

Take, for example, the drawings that Burchfield called “all-day sketches.” In 1915, he did dozens of them, each a timeline of the changing weather on a specific day. “Looking at the dates and the actual weather data,” said Dr. Vermette, it was possible to confirm that “yes, this is a visual depiction of what the data says is happening.”

For some of the works, visitors can listen on their cellphones to a simulated weather broadcast for the date and location being depicted—a touch of verisimilitude that the artist himself might have appreciated.

Two 1915 works, both titled “Flaming Orange Northern Sky at Sunset/V-4,” seemed far too vividly colored to be accurate—until Dr. Vermette discovered that Lassen Peak, a volcano in California, had erupted in May 1915, two months earlier. “Brilliant sky colors, especially at sunset, often occur after volcanic eruptions,” he noted. While it isn’t possible to make a definitive connection between the eruption and Burchfield’s fiery sunsets, “it makes sense,” he said. “It fits.”

Beyond weather conditions, Burchfield’s works convey a deeper sense of what he experienced in nature. As early as 1917, he began developing a vocabulary of symbols to visually represent emotions, and some of them “are not so dissimilar from the ways a meteorologist might represent the weather,” said Mr. Johnson. One such symbol appears in “Clearing Sky,” a watercolor dated July 1, 1917. A strong wind, blowing right to left, is indicated by curved chevrons pushing across the picture—for Burchfield, emblems of movement and change that, in simplified form, might not appear out of place on a weather map.

Burchfield continually looked for ways to depict non-visible aspects of nature, including sound and energy. The shafts of yellow light in the 1952 watercolor “July Sunlight Pouring Down” become nearly solid as they reach the ground, while the tree at the center bends under its burden of light as if under a heavy snowfall, and the vegetation below appears to release heat in undulating waves. In the 1950 drawing “Sun Over Wheatfield,” a vista of ripe, heavy grain undulates with the heat, but the sun itself—small, dark and canopied with free-form, abstract rays—dominates the composition.

Burchfield’s concern for nature extended beyond simply painting it. Even as a young man, said Mr. Johnson, “he would often write about the sulfur leaching out of the coal mines in Salem, and lament the loss of the fish from the streams there.” He was a member of the Nature Conservancy, and had he lived another 10 years, Mr. Johnson added, “he would have probably fit into the role of an environmentalist.” As it is, Burchfield fits elegantly into the role of visionary artist and interpreter of the natural world. And as “Weather Event” demonstrates, he’s not a bad meteorologist, either.