Finding Happiness in a Bllzzard

Sunshine During a Blizzard, water color on paper, , 30 1/2 x 40 1/2", 1947-1959, image from Burchfield Penney Archives, Buffalo, NY.

This painting by Charles Burchfield (American, 1893 - 1967) is one of those paintings that should look superficial and a bit ridiculous but instead holds up as serious art. To me "serious art" just means something you're going to want to look at more than once. In this case I'd like to look quite often.

What is Burchfield painting? In a heavy snow sometimes the clouds part for a moment and shafts of sunlight pierce through the airborne falling snow. The air fills with thousands of improbable tiny drifting diamonds. One doesn't see it very often, but if you've lived in the snow belt in Western New York State (as Burchfield and I did) you've seen it more often. You'd have to be made of stone not to be moved by it. I don't think we have words adequate to describe the sensation.

Burchfield was making a painting about his inner experience of something he'd seen. That he was such a good painter allowed him to make something that could reach out and stir some of those same feelings in complete strangers. In that way it's remarkable.

Much of what makes this watercolor work is that Burchfield adds an unanticipated supporting cast to build a tableau to support his story. There's a whole extra element added by the sharply drawn rhythms of the pointy tree branches and the three quite solid houses. 

It's a challenge to paint sunlight and give it the feeling of weight and impact it deserves. Burchfield paints his rays of sun as if they're solid enough to cover over and block us momentarily from seeing his grove of trees and the wood siding on his tallest house. I think many lesser painters would have been tempted to overdo it with the sunlight and have it completely dominate the scene. 

Instead, Burchfield relegates his yellows to pretty much just the left hand side of the painting, and gives the neutral grays of snowy sky, drifts on the ground, and the all-gray houses much more of the surface of his painting. In a way the artist is walking a tightrope between snowy dreariness and golden exuberance. And he demonstrates an exquisite sense of balance.

Burchfield invented a deeply personal shorthand for his mark making. They're part calligraphy and part just little bursts of abstract energy. I think it fascinating that Burchfield maintained a long term friendship with Edward Hopper (a painter I'm stylistically much closer too).  Despite Hopper's legendary reluctance to find much worth in the work of his contemporaries, he did admire Burchfield's work. It's a tribute to the quality of Burchfield's expression that he could move someone as steadfastly focused on his own painter's direction as Hopper. 

That's what I love about painting. It's a language to share some of our most powerful yet hard to express emotions with others. Most of the people who see Burchfield's paintings will never have met the man in person, yet in another way, they know him well. That's a kind of magic we need more of in this world. That's what motivates me to keep picking up my brushes and heading back to my easel.

Update: I'm happy to report the Burchfield Penney Art Center added this post to their Museum Art Blog on 2/22/12. Here's the link.


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