Naturalist Charles Burchfield

If you’ve got summer on your mind these days–and who doesn’t?–you may be drawn to some of the bucolic images in Swann’s June 12 auction of American Art. And, among those lovely examples is Charles Burchfield’s watercolor and pencil depiction of Lacy Trees and Sunlit Clouds. Even that title makes you yearn for lady warm-weather days, no?

Burchfield (1893-1967) was born and raised in rural Ohio. As a shy boy he took refuge in nature and absorbed works by the popular Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and John Burroughs. Burchfield’s early interest in nature never waned, and he remained first and foremost a landscape artist throughout his career. He studied at the Cleveland School of Art in 1912 and, after graduating, took a job designing wallpaper. In 1928, Burchfield abandoned the wallpaper business to pursue fine art full time. The Montross Gallery was already exhibiting his work, but in 1929 Frank Rehn began representing the artist, a pivotal moment in his career, as Rehn made life as an artist a viable possibility for Burchfield–who was by then a father of five. Burchfield had already been exhibiting extensively since 1916, and in 1930, had the honor of the Museum of Modern Art’s first one-man exhibition featuring his early watercolors. 

Burchfield’s oeuvre is typically divided into three periods: the first until 1929; the middle until 1950; and the final period lasting until the year or so before his death. Each period is still closely related, as he never strayed from portraying nature and utilizing watercolor. Burchfield’s early period, from which Lacy Trees and Sunlit Clouds and another lot, Morning Glories, date, was extraordinarily prolific. He produced half of his entire oeuvre between 1915 and 1917 (Burchfield considered 1917 to be his “golden year”). He painted many of these early works from the direct vantage point of his home and experimented liberally with color.