Paintings That Shouldn't Work But Do: Burchfield

An artist friend, Anne McGurk, who I've never met in person but who's got a heck of a good eye for paintings (disclaimer, she owns one of my oils, proving right there she has an elite sensibility) has put together an album of work by the American painter Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) that is just a hoot. I have to recommend it to you- here's the link.

It's got lots of images that I've never seen before along with old favorites. Burchfield is one of those painters who defies being put into an easy category. He draws from America's long tradition of romantic nature painting (Hudson River School, Martin Johnson Heade), adds in an enthusiasm for modernist shallow spaces, and seasons the whole thing with what I can only call a psychedelic inner spice. In other words, he doesn't look like anybody else. Burchfield has a knack for making paintings that break all sorts of rules of "serious" painting but somehow manage to work successfully anyway.

In the watercolor above, Glory of Spring or Radiant Spring, Burchfield puts in a ton of bright yellow, usually a curse of death in a watercolor. Doing that can often just destroy any sense of deeper space or weighty solidity. He is however really careful to install most of his yellows into shapes that are clearly bounded and deliberate, like in the "auras" surrounding the two foreground tree trunks. Exactly what these shapes represent is any one's guess. But they do provide Burchfield an excuse to set up something more surprising than just the expected vertical thrusts one gets from the two foreground trees. I love the way these yellow "auras" overlap the distant thicket of sapplings and push them back into space.

Burchfield knows how well the color white works when placed right next to bright yellow. That's actually one of my own personal "rules" of painting. 

Here's another beauty from Anne's Burchfield album, Song of the Wood Thrush. And a song is exactly what Burchfield gives us. He paints about 15 major vertical tree trunks in a row extending either partly or entirely from top to bottom of his picture. This is a recipe for disaster in most cases. 

But then his wood thrush opens his beak and "sings" us a chorus of wiggling curvy lines, breaking up the monotony of all those previously mentioned verticals. That would look odd and out of place left by itself, so then in the far distance we see an echo of another network of wiggling lines in a group of trees on the far bank of the stream. Maybe it's an answering call by another wood thrush. Who knows, maybe they'll find love and start a family together. I'm kidding of course, but Burchfield is the kind of artist who sort of nudges you to indulge yourself in poetic flight-of-fancy. In a world so intent on maximizing efficiencies and multitasking, I think that's providing a real service.

Like any great painter, Burchfield is someone who does break rules when he had to to realize his very personal inner vision. But he also knew the traditions of painting backward and forward. And as wild as his imagery at first appears, he anchored his extravagant inventiveness in some very solid compositional ideas. I cant' think of a painter who better harnesses explosive energy and deftly pulls his paintings together. He goes right up to the edge of overdoing something, and then pulls back just in time to keep a sense of proportion and balance.

Thank you Anne for pulling this amazing Burchfield album together for us.


  1. Thank you for posting this. I have admired Burchfield for years. His paintings just pulse with energy!


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