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Charles Burchfield
(American, 1893–1967)
Early December Snow
1945
Watercolor on paper, 25" x 29"
Sax Brothers Purchase Fund

Although he did study at the Cleveland (Ohio) Institute of Art (1912–1916) while supporting himself with clerical jobs, and later at the National Academy of Design in New York, Charles Burchfield is thought of primarily as a self-taught artist, and one who worked almost exclusively in watercolor. Today he is recognized as one of the great artists of the 20th century due to the fact that he absorbed and reflected through his art influences as diverse as the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, Eastern spiritual philosophy, and his own intuitive understanding of the natural world. Burchfield also admired and identified with realist writers of the 1920s and 30s like Sherwood Anderson and Willa Cather, whose rich descriptions of everyday life in middle America find a parallel in his highly animated paintings of otherwise lifeless structures. It was always the small, commonplace objects and scenes, literally observed in his own backyard, that attracted Burchfield. Through his skillful and intuitive manipulation of composition, color, and value, he enlivened the simplest of subjects, and brought the energy he sensed in them up sharply in front of the viewer’s eye.

In 1949, Burchfield was the first artist to participate in the Summer Guest Artist program at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The Tweed Museum of Art is fortunate to own examples of both the artist’s early and later work. Winter Late Afternoon (1916) is one of many small, decorative compositions of backyard gardens and fields painted around Burchfield’s home of Salem, Ohio between 1915 and 1921. Early December Snow (1945) belongs to the second phase of Burchfield’s career (1920 to the mid-1940s), when he was among the first painters in watercolor to dramatically increase the scale of his work. His subject matter also evolved at this time from intimate scenes of nature to depictions of depression-era villages, farms and industries, a change which may have been triggered by his service in the army. The house in this painting may have been Burchfield’s own, in Buffalo, New York, where he moved permanently after marrying in 1921, or that of a neighbor. In any case, the simple structure and its surroundings are uniquely animated, and due to his fluid control of the watercolor medium, assume an almost anthropomorphic or animistic presence. Burchfield was attracted in particular to snow covered scenes, because, it has been suggested, of the literal and metaphorical cleansing effect snow has on the man-made landscape. After the mid-1940s, Burchfield returned to nature as a dominant theme, but kept the scale of his work large, going on to produce some of the most powerful watercolor paintings of the century.

 
 
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