Charles Ephraim Burchfield was born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, and grew up in Salem, Ohio. In 1916, he graduated from the Cleveland School of Art, where he studied art for four years with Henry Keller, Frank Wilcox, and William J. Eastman. Keller is known to have been an early and enthusiastic advocate of Modernism, including Post-Impressionism and German Expressionism; Keller encouraged Burchfield to find his own manner of personal expression.
Burchfield’s oeuvre is complex and profound. Known equally well for his biting visual commentaries on the impact of Industrialism on the land and people of the small town, Burchfield also is known for his pantheistic portraits of nature. Burchfield achieved critical recognition early; his first showing in New York was in 1916. His works of the late teens and early twenties are significant expressions of what would become known as American Scene Painting. In 1930, at the age of 37, Burchfield’s art was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the newly opened Museum of Modern Art in New York. The catalogue essay, written by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., is a probing analysis of Burchfield’s early modernist works and original contribution to American Art.
Burchfield relied heavily on his native Ohio landscape to conjure a personal inventory of powerfully expressive motifs to communicate his close pantheistic bond with nature. Though his paintings reveal his sensitivity to French Impressionist and Fauve works in their use of decorative design, the expressive power of arbitrary color and reductive forms, his masterful watercolors also demonstrate an expansion of the boundaries of the watercolor tradition stemming back through Whistler to the early nineteenth-century British School.
His depictions of nature often have a haunting quality, where wind, trees, and light seem to take on a life of their own. He captured the magic of nature in much the same way that a child experiences its power — with wariness and awe. He developed a series of visual motifs to express intangibles, such as sound and heat, to further convey the complexity and profundity of experience.
Burchfield’s provocative and evocative paintings are owned by virtually every major museum in the country, and have been the subject of scholarly exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other prominent institutions. His distinctive interpretation of the American landscape is as personal, powerful, and compelling as that of George Bellows and John H. Twachtman, although in a darker, more emotional way.