Painter. Working primarily in watercolor, he created expressionistic landscapes and small-town scenes informed by a strongly romantic temperament and a searchingly observant eye. In many of his most effective works, powerful, otherworldly forces seem to animate both the natural landscape and its man-made additions, such as barns, Victorian houses, and idled factories. The gnarly pessimism of some works grew from his hatred of modern industrialism and its deleterious effects on village life. In other works, he conveyed a mystical ecstasy before a natural world throbbing with radiant vitality. Born in Ashtabula, Ohio, Charles Ephraim Burchfield grew up in Salem, a small industrial town in the southeastern part of the state. In 1912 he began four years of study at the Cleveland School (now Institute) of Art. Subsequently, except for a few months in New York and half a year in the U.S. Army, Burchfield worked at a Salem metal fabricating plant, while honing an original vision in his spare time. As he drew on childhood memories, buildings became anthropomorphic monsters, trees loomed with menace, and marvelously designed insects threatened. For his characteristic flat patterns, stylized natural forms, and rhythmic movement, he drew on precedents in postimpressionism and art nouveau. During this period, he also attempted to formulate symbols from natural forms to correspond with certain emotional states. In one of the best-known—and most alarming—paintings of this period, Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night (Cleveland Museum of Art, 1917), the bell itself is “fear,” while “imbecility,” “morbidness,” and other symbols also appear. Inspired in part by Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, which he read in 1919, around 1920 he turned his sights toward capturing a small-town essence. For two decades, this remained Burchfield's main objective, although industrial subjects also appear.
From 1921 until 1929, when he began painting full time, Burchfield worked in Buffalo, New York, as a skillful designer of wallpaper, ingeniously deriving decorative patterns from plants and flowers. Although the 1920s and 1930s paintings and drawings usually project a subjective bias—a feeling of menace or mystery, for example—these evocations of heartland towns and cities nevertheless represent his most straightforward work. Visible through a window, in Six O'Clock (Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, 1936) a family gathers in a warm interior, while snow and cold shadows pile up against a line of monotonously gabled rowhouses. Other works depict the drab and utilitarian bridges and factories of Buffalo and eastern Ohio. Many of these works fit comfortably within the broad tendency known as the American Scene movement. From 1925 until the end of his life, Burchfield lived in the same house in Gardenville, a Buffalo suburb. In the early 1940s, inspired by his own work from around 1917 and his memories of the rapture that motivated those paintings, he began once again to emphasize personal, pantheistic feelings. Turning to themes from nature, he achieved powerful, transcendental expression in much larger formats than he had used a quarter century earlier. Sun and Rocks (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1918–50) reworks an early vision into a dynamic expression of natural forces: flattened, pulsating geological forms push outward from the earth toward an awesome radiance in the sky. Burchfield's health and productivity began to decline in the mid-1950s, but he continued painting almost until the end of his life, moving into more dreamlike territory than he had previously inhabited. While on a brief outing, he died in West Seneca, not far from his Gardenville residence. The Burchfield Homestead Museum in Salem preserves his early home.