Archive for Charles Burchfield

Charles Burchfield, watercolor painter [GUIDE]

Posted in Art, Guides, Modern with tags on February 10, 2012 by Nell


Charles BurchfieldCharles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967) was a one-of-a-kind American watercolor painter who created wonderful transcendental images of nature who lived and worked primarily in Western New York.

Visit the topics in this guide to learn about some major themes and influences in his artwork; discover selected representative paintings; and to hear and explore music I’ve composed inspired by the paintings.


An Introduction to Charles Burchfield

Featured Paintings

Music Inspired by Art

Nell Shaw Cohen, “Watercolors” (2011) paintings by Charles Burchfield

Posted in Art, Modern, Music with tags , , , on February 9, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), painter

 Guide: Music Inspired by Art

Watercolors (2011) is a work for wind quintet I composed inspired by the watercolor paintings of Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967), a brilliant American artist of the first half of the 20th century.

The four movements of Watercolors correspond to four paintings: An April Mood, Autumnal Fantasy, Sun and Rocks, and Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring). Although these works were not created by Burchfield as a series, they have common threads: each is a mystical, semi-abstract vision of a natural environment, and expresses the changing seasons (especially the coming of spring).

In Watercolors, I created a sonic atmosphere that expresses my interpretation of each of the paintings: both on a general level of mood or ambiance and through specific musical details that relate to visual elements in the paintings. Here is a guide to some of the more prominent musical ideas that relate to identifiable features of the paintings.

See below for images and details from each of the paintings, text describing my interpretation, and audio clips of relevant excerpts from the music.

I. An April Mood

An April Mood

I feel this painting [watch a video about the painting] has a lonely, introspective quality, yet it captures the unique and noble beauty of a stormy spring day. I chose to begin this movement with a horn call, echoed by the bassoon, that captures this juxtaposition of loneliness with nobility (the latter a quality traditionally associated with the horn).

Repeated notes in the upper winds were my attempt to evoke the pitter-patter of raindrops, and the overall sense of movement in the windy atmosphere of the painting.

Burchfield creates a dark, almost angsty, image (exemplified by the dead, barren trees in the foreground) with an underlying sense of hope for the coming spring. There is a section in the music that is repeated and varied in the piece (and ultimately ends it), which represents Burchfield’s poignant sense of yearning for spring and wonderment at the regenerative powers of nature.

Download the complete recording of “An April Mood”.


II. Autumnal Fantasy

Autumnal Fantasy

This painting [watch a video about the painting] is remarkable for its depiction of sound. Burchfield symbolizes bird calls and insect noises with abstract ‘reverberating’ shapes. The viewer is given a rich sense of the world of noises in these woods, and so it was an irresistable choice for me to base this piece on musical motives that resemble bird calls or insects. They are meant to suggest such sounds, rather than recreating any individual animal noise.

“This staccato bird/insect music is juxtaposed throughout the movement with slow, lyrical, chordal music. In its first appearance, this music represents the incredible sun in this painting (or “diamond star”, as Burchfield called it), which for me evokes a warm, healing light.”

“Slow, chordal music returns later in the movement with a more haunting mood. This music represents the darkness in the lefthand background of the painting–the woods appear to extend far into the distance, which suggests that the forest contains a mysterious realm beyond our view.”

Download the complete recording of “Autumnal Fantasy”


III. Sun and Rocks

Sun and Rocks

This painting [watch a video about the painting] is incredibly bold: high contrasts between light and dark, strong colors, and dramatic, sharp contours, and I wanted to create a sonic palette that reflected this. I scored the ensemble in the extremes of the high and low range for the primary section in the piece (which undergoes a series of variations). I also chose to include piccolo flute in the place of C flute for just this movement. Its register is extremely high in comparison with the other instruments, and it expands the range of the ensemble and the contrast between registers.

There are extended sections in the music where layers of throbbing, swelling, dissonant notes stretch out over each other. I was attempting to capture both the physical sense of vibration, and the otherworldly, hallucinatory quality, in this painting—Burchfield’s image and my music reverberate with waves of heat, sound, energy, or all of the above.

Download the complete recording of “Sun and Rocks”.


IV. Glory of Spring

Glory of Spring

‘Glory of Spring’ [watch a video about the painting] to me is almost simple–both visually and emotionally–in comparison with the other more tumultuous, complex paintings in this set. Accordingly, this movement is shorter and more lyrical than the others.

The movement centers on a melodic theme, stated most prominently by unaccompanied horn, that has a nostalgic quality. For me, this melody, and the clear, pure sound of the horn in its upper register, reflects the peaceful beauty in this painting. It isn’t joyous or overbearing–it is gentle, light, and has a healing quality.

The feeling of clarity and light, simple beauty, is also expressed through lush, high-register chords which echo the golden light in the painting (“liquid light”, as Nancy Weekly sees it).

There is a lovely balance of visual elements in this painting, and an unmistakable suggestion of holiness–the sky and trees even resemble the architecture of a cathedral. The aesthetic of Renaissance music sees beauty in balance and subtle nuance, and through church music, it’s also inextricably related to our sense of the holy. At the time I composed Watercolors, I was studying Renaissance vocal polyphony, so I incorporated some imitative counterpoint techniques adapted from polyphony into this movement.

Download the complete recording of “Glory of Spring”.

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Charles Burchfield, “Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring)” (1950) [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Modern, Videos with tags on February 9, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), painter

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Charles Burchfield, “Sun and Rocks” (1918-50) [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Modern, Videos with tags on February 9, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), painter

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Charles Burchfield, “Autumnal Fantasy” (1916-44) [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Modern, Videos with tags on February 9, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), painter

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Charles Burchfield, “An April Mood” (1946-55) [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Modern, Videos with tags on February 9, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), painter

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An Introduction to Charles Burchfield

Posted in Art, Modern, Videos with tags , on February 9, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), painter

Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967) was born and raised in Ohio (first in Ashtabula, then Salem). He graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art, and was employed as a wallpaper designer at H.M. Birge in Buffalo, New York. He eventually quit to pursue painting full-time, and lived thereafter in Gardenville (West Seneca), a suburb of Buffalo.

Burchfield’s middle-period work (roughly the 1920s-early 1940s) focused on realist paintings depicting American small-town and industrial life, which brought him popularity and acclaim in his time. However, the visionary works of his early and late output may appear even more remarkable to us today: Burchfield’s mystical, abstract nature imagery is arrestingly unique.

The videos below were produced by Beyond the Notes and feature Nancy Weekly, Curator and Head of Collections at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, who has written and edited several books on Burchfield including Charles E. Burchfield: The Sacred Woods, and co-curated the recent exhibit Sensory Crossovers: Synesthesia in American Art.

Fear, Hope, and the Sublime in Burchfield’s Paintings

The co-existing themes of fear and hope were central to the character of Burchfield’s artwork. Many of his paintings have an ominous or negative quality, but ultimately his output as a whole may be seen to portray an optimistic outlook.

Burchfield’s Canvas Expansion Technique

Some of Charles Burchfield’s later works were revisions and expansions on paintings that he had created decades earlier, including Autumnal Fantasy and Sun and Rocks, which were started when Burchfield was in his 20s and completed when he was in his 50s. He started with the kernel of an early painting and attached new sections of canvas to create a more expansive and more fully realized vision.

Burchfield’s Influences from Music and Sound

Music had major influence on Burchfield’s paintings and his aesthetic. From Burchfield’s early days in art school when he idolized composer Richard Wagner and sketched abstract symbols representing musical motifs from the opera “Siegfried”, to the maturity of his career when he drew on Beethoven and Sibelius for inspiration in his large-scale watercolor paintings, music served as an ongoing source of inspiration and a reference point for his artwork.

Charles Burchfield is thought to have had synesthesia (check out my video “An Introduction to Synesthesia”). Although we can’t be sure (Burchfield himself never addressed it), some scholars find ideas in his art and journals that are distinctly synesthetic in character.

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