Is Charles Burchfield Really Caspar David Friedrich on Anti-Depressants?

I was  looking at some wonderful paintings by Charles Burchfield (American, 1893-1967) in an album put together by my friend Anne McGurk on Facebook this morning. My eye was caught by this heraldic watercolorDawn in Early Spring. 

Burchfield delivers a sensation of the earth rising up to meet the heavens. You look at the painting and you feel like drawing in a great, deep breath of the life-giving spring air. It's bracing and invigorating.

Just as I was enjoying that boisterous sensation, another image that was much quieter crept into my mind- the uprising arches of a ruined cathedral in the winter forest. Of course it was my old friend Caspar David Friedrich knocking at my mental door. Friedrich is the most famous of the romantic German landscape painters of the 19th century (he lived 1774- 1840). This is his Cloister Cemetery in the Snow.

I immediately thought how much fun it would be to look at the exuberant Burchfield next to this elegy by Friedrich. I think it's almost certain that Burchfield knew and admired the old German's landscapes. Clearly Burchfield's trees in the center of his watercolor cluster together in an almost self-consciously cathedral-like way. Narrow arches point heavenward in both Burchfield's and Friedrich's paintings, and both artists contrast that with lace-like countermovements of little branches or even just lively brushstrokes in Burchfield's case.

Bottom line is that despite their compositional similarities, these two paintings couldn't feel more different.

Here's another great Friedrich winter painting, Abby in an Oak Forest. 

It's not that Burchfield or Friedrich is better. I think we need both kinds of paintings- art that's playful or that celebrates, and art that calls us to reflect on things that have passed, to wonder about what survives and what is lost. Wistful art.

I joked with my title for this post about anti-depressant medications. Burchfield was unlikely to have taken them as they really weren't much available in his lifetime. And judging from the slightly over the top mood of the Burchfield watercolor,  a hefty dose of Prozac might just have sent him into a manic orbit of our planet. Friedrich on the other hand would be a fascinating subject for study. Would the right anti-depressant have lifted him out of his beautiful melancholy? And if so, would he have taken at least a few steps in Burchfield's direction?

What the real tenor of the day to day emotional life was for either of these artists I have no idea. What we can say is that both of them, each in their own distinctive way, made the most of what they had. And we get to delight in the richnes of their results.


  1. I'm a huge admirer of both Burchfield and Friedrich but never really considered their work in just this juxtaposed way until your post. Your title caught my eye - and made me laugh. Comparing emotional 'pitch' makes an interesting theory and new way to look at their work.


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