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Charles Burchfield: Creator of Symbolism in Art

charlesburchfield

Charles Burchfield's Paintings Trigger a Range of Sensations & Emotions

Why do I like the art of Charles Burchfield? His powerful paintings conjure up myriad emotions and sensations!

Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893--1967) was an American artist who drew upon his vivid memories of childhood to create some of the most innovative art ever seen. Searching for a way to express his unforgettable childhood experiences, Burchfield devised a series of symbols to express emotions, sounds, movement, and sensations. The majority of Burchfield's works were composed from watercolors, but some of his larger works were done in oils.

Burchfield's sensitivity to sounds moved him almost as much as sight, and he was particularly fascinated with the sound of crickets and other insects. Symbols for these sounds, as well as symbols expressing emotions such as: fear, morbidness, dangerous brooding, insanity, menace, fascination of evil, melancholy, hypnotic intensity, imbecility, fear of loneliness, nostalgia, and meditation are to be found in his 1917 sketchbook titled, "Conventions For Abstract Thoughts."

Most of Burchfield's symbols are based upon his association of emotions with particular shapes. For example, "fascination of evil" is depicted by a smiling mouth, "insanity" and "imbecility" by staring-eye motifs. Burchfield began to weave these symbols into his works in 1917, at the young age of twenty-four.

I especially enjoy the way Burchfield's interpretations often turn inanimate objects, such as buildings, into menacing creatures, evoking feelings of a childhood encounter with the "boogey man." A prime example is his painting, "Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night," in which the church and sky above take on demonic overtones.

Many of Burchfield's paintings, such as "The Insect Chorus," and "Autumnal Fantasy," celebrate the hauntingly beautiful world of nature with the use of symbols (for movement, sensation, and sound), which are intended to draw the viewer into the painting as a participant rather than viewer.

"The Red Admiral" by Charles Burchfield 1962

37 x 28 inches

37 x 28 inches

"The Insect Chorus" by Charles Burchfield 1917

Opaque and transparent watercolor with ink, graphite, and crayon on off-white paper. Can you hear the sounds of the insects? 19 7/8 x 15 7/8 inches.

Opaque and transparent watercolor with ink, graphite, and crayon on off-white paper. Can you hear the sounds of the insects? 19 7/8 x 15 7/8 inches.

"Night of the Equinox" by Charles Burchfield 1917--1955

40 x 52 inches. "Night of the Equinox" took Burchfield thirty-eight years to complete, and combines many artistic phases of his career. Drama is created by a limited palette of somber colors, and bold slashes of paint represent a driving rain.

40 x 52 inches. "Night of the Equinox" took Burchfield thirty-eight years to complete, and combines many artistic phases of his career. Drama is created by a limited palette of somber colors, and bold slashes of paint represent a driving rain.

"Childhood's Garden" by Charles Burchfield 1917

Watercolor on paper. 18 7/8 x 27 inches.

Watercolor on paper. 18 7/8 x 27 inches.

"Fear" Motif Sketch by Charles Burchfield 1917 - From His Sketchbook "Conventions For Abstract Thoughts"

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Signs and Symbols Used by Burchfield:

  • "M"=Fear and anxiety
  • "V"=Hope and renewal
  • Everyday symbols (such as birds, trees, flowers, stars, sunlight, moonlight, and dark pools of water)=Burchfield's own feelings.
  • Chevrons and black dots=force and movement
  • Auras and "vibrating lines"=sounds (such as insects and taping woodpeckers)
  • Smiling mouth=fascination of evil
  • Staring eyes=insanity and imbecility
  • Peaked form=morbidness
  • Hooked spiral=fear
  • Looping line=A bird's musical notes

"Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night" by Charles Burchfield 1917

Watercolor and gouache over graphite. 30 3/8 x 19 5/8 inches.

Watercolor and gouache over graphite. 30 3/8 x 19 5/8 inches.

"Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night," is one of the finest examples of Burchfield's early creative period, an expression of Burchfield's recollection of childhood terror upon encountering the sound of booming church bells on a dark and dreary winter night.

Burchfield kept a journal and also created a series of drawings in preparation for this work. In these sketches, he strove to record the emotions he felt by inventing various shapes which he felt best expressed these feelings.

Viewing the progression of the sketches, it's interesting to note how the tower of the church gradually evolves into a bird-like shape, with the windows of the steeple turning into the eyes of "imbecility." The bell has morphed into the hooked spiral of "fear," which is also reflected in the sky. The roofs and doors of the houses become markedly peaked, depicting "morbidness," while high up on the right wall is the smiling mouth of "fascination of evil."


"Sunrise in the Forest" by Charles burchfield

charlesburchfield

"Rainy Night" by Charles Burchfield 1918

Created in watercolor and black chalk heightened with white. 18 x 24 inches.

Created in watercolor and black chalk heightened with white. 18 x 24 inches.

"Moon Through Young Sunflowers" by Charles Burchfield 1916

Gouache, pencil, and watercolor on paper. 19 7/8 x 14 inches.

Gouache, pencil, and watercolor on paper. 19 7/8 x 14 inches.

"Sultry Day" by Charles Burchfield 1959

40 x 33 inches

40 x 33 inches

"A Dream of Butterflies" by Charles Burchfield 1962

30 x 40 inches

30 x 40 inches

"July Drought Sun" by Charles Burchfield, 1949--60

Watercolor on paper. 45 x 54 inches.

Watercolor on paper. 45 x 54 inches.

His Life

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Charles Burchfield was born on April 9, 1893, in Ashtabula, Ohio, the fifth of six children. When Charles was only four, his father died and the family was left nearly penniless. His mother took the family back to her hometown of Salem, Ohio, where she had relatives living. Her brothers provided a house for them to live in and Burchfield's older brother, Jim, although only fifteen, kept the family afloat by securing a job in a local factory.

Burchfield displayed a strong interest and talent for painting early on, as well as a love for nature. He was a shy child, and very reserved; from fifth grade until his senior year in high school, he had no close friends, and spent a large part of his time alone. From seventh grade on, he began working part time--first as a drugstore errand boy, then as a mail clerk at Mullins Company, a local manufacturer. An avid reader, when not working, painting, or attending school, he consumed anything he could get his hands on.

In 1911, Burchfield graduated from Salem High School. One of two students who presented orations, his topic was "The Evolution of Art." When Burchfield was presented $120 in scholarship money, the faculty had hopes that he would attend college and continue his studies in Latin, but Burchfield had other ideas. He wanted to go to art school, but since he would need money for tuition, he took a job at Mullins as a filler--that is, until he came down with Typhoid fever and ended up convalescing at home for a year.

Fortunately, some good came of his time off. He spent time reading the works of John Burroughs, and trekked all over the countryside, in various types of weather, which instilled in him a love for "the native scene." During that year, Burchfield painted a series of watercolors--depictions of dried berries, weeds, and fruits. He picked up extra money by selling them to neighbors for place cards and calendar decorations.

By the fall of 1912, Burchfield was enrolled at the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art). Although he had originally planned to be an illustrator, he abandoned those plans in his third year and decided "to be an artist and just paint pictures." Burchfield's favorite course was design, which he excelled in. In his second year of school, he became influenced by Japanese scroll drawings, after seeing them in an exhibition at Hatch Galleries in Cleveland. After four years of art school, Burchfield finally earned his degree in 1916.

In 1917, Burchfield began incorporating symbols, motifs, and colors into his work to represent movement, sounds, emotions, and sensations. During this period, his paintings took on a bold, expressionistic quality. His largest body of work was produced during this time, and many critics agree that he created his most significant work during this period.

In 1918, Burchfield was called up for military service. Upon his release in 1919, he returned to his former job in Salem and quickly got to work creating a series of new water colors. Unhappy with the results, he destroyed them all. Years later, Burchfield would voice his regret: "I did a series of water-colors which I later destroyed, deeming them an aberration in my career. I have since regretted their destruction, not because I think they had any real value . . . but simply for the reason that it is not necessary for an artist to censor his work--posterity will do that. . . ."

In 1921, Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York, to work as a wallpaper designer for M.H. Birge & Sons Company. There, he met and married Bertha Kenreich. They had five children together. In 1929, Burchfield was finally able to quit his job at the wallpaper company and support his household full time with his painting.

Although Burchfield spent most of his life in Buffalo, the greatest influences in his art are derived from his experiences while living as a child in rural Ohio--frolicking in the fields and woods, collecting wildflowers and pollywogs, minnows, moths, and other insects, as well as frequenting the local swimming hole.

Many of Burchfield's paintings represent classic Americana of the period, providing fascinating historical documents. Burchfield is best known for his "American Scene" paintings of the 1920s and '30s, where he combined nature scenes with views of small-town America.

In the 1940s, Burchfield rejected this realism, returning to his earlier approach of focusing on nature, embracing his beloved expressionistic style of painting once again. During this time, Burchfield even managed to rework many of his older paintings, often pasting paper around the borders in order to extend them. One example of this is his painting, "The Sphinx and the Milky Way," in which Burchfield enlarges the painting by attaching it, along with several blank sheets of paper, to a larger sheet of paper, then continuing the painting onto the additions.

Burchfield experienced many ups and downs in his art career, continually changing his focus. He often experienced periods of time when he was unable to bring himself to paint. Thankfully, these bleak periods eventually passed, and Charles always rebounded with renewed vim and vigor.

From 1949--52, Burchfield taught art at the Art Institute of Buffalo. He also taught summer class at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, and the University of Buffalo, as well as the University of Minnesota, Duluth Branch, Duluth Minnesota. At Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Burchfield taught advanced seminar.

In 1967, Charles Burchfield died of a heart attack in West Seneca, New York.

During his lifetime, Burchfield participated in many one-man exhibitions, and was the recipient of many awards and honors for his art.

Writing in his exhibition catalog of the University of Arizona Art Gallery (1965), Burchfield said that he believed 1917 to be the "golden year" of his career.

Many of Burchfield's original works are housed at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College, New York, which was originally dedicated in Burchfield's honor in 1966.

Charles Burchfield in Later Years

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"The Sphinx and the Milky Way" by Charles Burchfield 1946

Opaque and transparent watercolor, chalk, and crayon on woven watercolor paper. 52 5/8 x 44 3/4 inches.

Opaque and transparent watercolor, chalk, and crayon on woven watercolor paper. 52 5/8 x 44 3/4 inches.

"February Dusk" by Charles Burchfield 1918

Watercolor and graphite on paper. 14 7/8 x 21 inches.

Watercolor and graphite on paper. 14 7/8 x 21 inches.

"Clover Field in June" by Charles Burchfield 1947

Watercolor on paper. 39 3/4 x 28 3/4 inches.

Watercolor on paper. 39 3/4 x 28 3/4 inches.

"The Corner Store" by Charles Burchfield 1917

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"Still Life in Winter" by Charles Burchfield 1951

Watercolor and pencil on paper mounted on paperboard. 29 7/8 x 40 inches.

Watercolor and pencil on paper mounted on paperboard. 29 7/8 x 40 inches.

"Storm at Sunset" by Charles Burchfield 1959

Watercolor. 33 x 55 inches.

Watercolor. 33 x 55 inches.

"Forest Fire in Moonlight" by Charles Burchfield 1920

Can you see the devilish face? Watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper. 25 1/2 x 18 1/4 inches.

Can you see the devilish face? Watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper. 25 1/2 x 18 1/4 inches.

"Wheat Field and Tower" by Charles Burchfield 1917

Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper. 22 x 18 inches.

Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper. 22 x 18 inches.

"Sunday Morning at Eleven O'Clock" by Charles Burchfield 1917

Watercolor. 22 x 18 inches.

Watercolor. 22 x 18 inches.

"The real artist is never at rest--he is always painting, if not actually, with his eye, or in his mind."

— Charles Burchfield

"Song of the Telegraph" by Charles Burchfield 1917--1952

Watercolor on paper. 34 x 53 inches.

Watercolor on paper. 34 x 53 inches.

"North Wind in March" by Charles Burchfield 1960--66

Watercolor. 47 1/2 x 59 1/2 inches.

Watercolor. 47 1/2 x 59 1/2 inches.

"Street Scene" by Charles Burchfield 1940--47

Watercolor on paper. 39 x 53 inches.

Watercolor on paper. 39 x 53 inches.

"Sun Setting in a Bank of Smoke" by Charles Burchfield 1917

Watercolor on paper. 21 1/2 x 17 1/2 inches.

Watercolor on paper. 21 1/2 x 17 1/2 inches.

"Moon Over Village" by Charles Burchfield 1917

18 x 22 inches

18 x 22 inches

Heat Waves in a Swamp (Part 1)

Heat Waves in a Swamp (Part 2)

"February Thaw" by Charles Burchfield 1920

Watercolor on paper. 18 x 28 inches.

Watercolor on paper. 18 x 28 inches.

"Orion in December" by Charles Burchfield 1959

39 7/8 x 32 7/8 inches. "Orion in December" brings to mind the myth of the hunter, Orion, who although loved by Artemis, was accidentally killed by her. Upon his death, Orion rises up to heaven to be eternally embraced in the constellations.

39 7/8 x 32 7/8 inches. "Orion in December" brings to mind the myth of the hunter, Orion, who although loved by Artemis, was accidentally killed by her. Upon his death, Orion rises up to heaven to be eternally embraced in the constellations.

"Orion in Winter" by Charles Burchfield 1962

Watercolor, white chalk and charcoal on paper. 48 x 54 inches.

Watercolor, white chalk and charcoal on paper. 48 x 54 inches.

"Lavender and Old Lace" by Charles Burchfield 1939--47

Watercolor on joined paper. 35 x 50 inches.

Watercolor on joined paper. 35 x 50 inches.

"Steel Mill Houses" by Charles Burchfield 1919

19 x 32 inches

19 x 32 inches

"The Night Wind" by Charles Burchfield 1918

Watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper.. Can you see the winglike form of "fear" in the sky and the eyes of "imbecility?" 21 1/2 x 21 7/8 inches.

Watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper.. Can you see the winglike form of "fear" in the sky and the eyes of "imbecility?" 21 1/2 x 21 7/8 inches.

"Gateway to September" by Charles Burchfield 1945--56

Watercolor on joined paper. 42 x 56 inches.

Watercolor on joined paper. 42 x 56 inches.

"Sultry Moon" by Charles Burchfield 1959

Watercolor on paper. 33 x 40 inches.

Watercolor on paper. 33 x 40 inches.

"October in the Woods" by Charles Burchfield 1938--63

Watercolor, gouache, chalk, and charcoal on joined papers, mounted on cardboard. 45 5/8 x 57 3/4 inches.

Watercolor, gouache, chalk, and charcoal on joined papers, mounted on cardboard. 45 5/8 x 57 3/4 inches.

"Sunspots" by Charles Burchfield 1951

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"Sun and Rocks" by Charles Burchfield 1918--50

Watercolor and gouache on paper. 40 x 56 inches.

Watercolor and gouache on paper. 40 x 56 inches.

"Pyramid of Fire" by Charles Burchfield 1929

Watercolor on paper. 24 1/2 x 32 7/8 inches.

Watercolor on paper. 24 1/2 x 32 7/8 inches.

"Rainy Night" by Charles Burchfield 1929--1930.

Watercolor over graphite. 30 x 42 inches

Watercolor over graphite. 30 x 42 inches

"Autumnal Fantasy" by Charles Burchfield 1916--1944

Watercolor on joined paper. 39 x 54 inches.

Watercolor on joined paper. 39 x 54 inches.

Burchfield's Mark

Interesting Charles Burchfield Links

"The Four Seasons" by Charles Burchfield 1949--60.

Watercolor on pieced paper mounted on board. 55 7/8 x 47 7/8 inches.

Watercolor on pieced paper mounted on board. 55 7/8 x 47 7/8 inches.

Quick--Name Your Favorite Burchfield Painting!

Brian Morley on August 30, 2020:

In college I saw the wonderful documentary called “the inlander” I have had trouble locating it to watch again, any thoughts?? He painted the whole interior of his studio in nature images, all about the North Carolina swamps!!

Edward Lane from Wichita Falls, Texas on March 28, 2020:

Love this article. Awesome writing. This could be a book. Amazing how an artist can transform his feelings into paintings!

Laurinzoscott from Kanab, Utah on March 23, 2020:

Wow you do know art...and for a novice like me your article is a godsend....oh pkease keep writing stuff like this!!!!

Blonde Blythe (author) from U.S.A. on March 30, 2014:

@Colin323: Thank you very much! I'm so glad you enjoy his work! Burchfield's work is very innovative and emotional--it speaks to my heart. Burchfield is one of my very favorite artists of all time!

Colin323 on March 30, 2014:

Very interestng. I hadn't heard of him before, but I like his work, particularly the 'Rainy Night' street scene you illustrated. I'll look out for his work.

Blonde Blythe (author) from U.S.A. on July 16, 2012:

@Bellezza-Decor: Maybe because of the peaks and valleys in the "M" shape?

Bellezza-Decor from Canada on July 14, 2012:

I'm curious as to why he thought "M"=Fear and anxiety?

anonymous on November 29, 2010:

Autumnal Fantasy

julieannbrady on May 26, 2010:

Oh gosh! There is SO much going on in these works of art ... OK, let me pick "Childhood's Garden" as I think being a child at heart can keep us young and imaginative!

artdecoco on July 05, 2009:

I really like the insect corus and the rainy night....but they all have to be my favs