A Heartland Artist Who Broke the Old Regionalist Mold

Two current exhibitions prove that, although Charles Burchfield’s watercolors are set in specific places, these works know no boundaries

Grain Elevators
Grain Elevators [drawing] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son) Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Charles Burchfield, who was born in 1893, liked to paint the places he knew well. He lived and worked in Salem, Ohio, and later in and around Buffalo, New York, and his subjects were most often the buildings and outdoor scenes that he walked past every day. His paintings, imbued with a deep personal symbolism born of his emotional responses to nature and his surroundings, brought the artist recognition as a major American master.

Author Henry Adams travels to Salem to seek out the motifs portrayed in Burchfield's works. There, with the help of local resident Richard Wootten, he finds that many of the buildings that inspired Burchfield still stand, among them his boyhood home and the Weaver house next door. In 1921 Burchfield moved to Buffalo, where he created more realistic images of industrial sites along the Buffalo River. Again, Adams locates some of these sites, discussing Burchfield's paintings in light of their similarities to and differences from the actual subjects.

Two current exhibitions explore Burchfield's career. "The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest," organized by the Columbus Museum of Art, will come to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art in September, after stops in Columbus and Buffalo. "Life Cycles: The Charles E. Burchfield Collection," drawn from the collection of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in Buffalo, will be sent to six venues around the country by the American Federation of Arts.

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