Charles Burchfield at the CMA: The Ohio Landscapes

Charles Burchfield, New Moon, November 1917, watercolor and opaque watercolor with graphite, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Anonymous gift in Memory of Henry G. Keller 1954.569

“A house is often more moody than nature …. They are built by men as dwellings, and this strange creature results. In the daytime they have an astonished look; at dusk they are evil; seem to brood over some crime. . . . Each one is individual.” – Charles Burchfield, 1916


On view until May 5 in the CMA Focus Gallery, Charles Burchfield: The Ohio Landscapes, 1915–1920 is a truly magnificent glimpse into the formative years of this highly original artist. Burchfield was a local lad – born in Ashtabula in 1893, after his father died he spent his childhood in the small rural town of Salem, Ohio (about 25 miles Southwest of Youngstown). After graduating valedictorian of his class, and supported by a scholarship and savings from the part-time jobs he had held since seventh grade, Burchfield attended the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art) from 1912 to 1916. In the fall of 1916 he won a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York City, but returned to Salem after only two months in New York (and only one day at the Academy). It seems that the big city was not for him. At the time, he was worried that his family would consider him a failure but he later recalled the relief he felt getting back to the landscape that inspired him: “One of the supremely happy moments of my whole life was when, after the days of agony in New York, I stood in the woods and listened to the wind soaring through the treetops. It seemed to me the most wonderful music I ever heard.”

During the winter of 1917-1918, after his return to Salem, for me, is when he produced his strongest, most emotionally abstract and resonant work. It was a particularly rough winter, weather-wise, with more snow and wind than the usual North East Ohio winter. You can actually feel the bleakness, the darkness and the bone-chilling cold as you look at the works on the back wall of the exhibition, all created during these freezing months.

Interestingly, it’s not the trees and natural world that Burchfield is capturing in these watercolors, but rather the structures in his tiny town – perhaps unable to venture out into the fields and forests due to the cold and snow, he stuck to the streets nearby his home, and turned his sights to the buildings around him. New Moon, November 1917 (above) is the first of the three, and a truly menacing building it is – the lines of the house are ominously curved, the windows like deep-set eyes, the dark tree limbs stretched out like spiderwebs, and the new moon rising in the background like an evil eye.

Luckily for us, Burchfield kept a detailed journal during this period, and the exhibition includes a digital display of its pages – so you can actually see what the young man wrote on this exact day, as he started this watercolor: “While out sketching this afternoon I wandered down dilapidated Howard Street. All at once (it was after sundown) I came upon a freak of a house; it had the look of insanity about it. I started [to] sketch. Presently from within a voice commenced to upbraid someone in the most foul, crude language… It was the incident I needed to give me the character of the house. A big black hulk against the pink sky, it now had written on it sin, degeneracy, filth, disease, bestiality & insanity.”


Charles Burchfield, Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night, 1917. Watercolor and gouache over graphite; The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Louise M. Dunn in memory of Henry G. Keller, 1949.544.

About two weeks later, he was continuing this line of thought, trying to find a visual language to reflect the personality of these buildings, a way to match what he felt to the images he produced. This culminated in what is highly regarded as his most famous work, Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night, 1917.

On December 5, 1917, he wrote in his journal: “I wandered between the Baptist & Presbyterian church[es] waiting to hear the bells ring — I ran back to one too late — the other I arrived at in time to hear the last ponderous beats — the whole tower seemed to vibrate with a dull roar afterwards, dying slowly & with a growl. A dark grey sky, the awesomeness of the air — dead quiet — an orange streak in SE, sun appears suddenly like a silver eye in a gold rim & is gone; it did not dispel the gloom of the night.”

And here in his most emotionally abstract work, Burchfield not only personifies the gloom, he tries to capture the feeling of the sound – the “dull roar” of the church bells, transforming the church tower into a ghastly apparition, a vibrating bird-like creature set against a tumultuous sky (the loud bells apparently frightened him as a child). The sad heaviness of this painting is tempered by a glimpse of a Christmas tree, peeking out of the lower left hand window – a tiny hint of safety and happiness in this terrifying scene. According to the exhibition label, as a child when Burchfield was scared of the bells he  “huddled in his bed and calmed himself by thinking of Christmas” – a time of warmth and happiness that soothed him when frightened of the darkness of the outside world.


Charles Burchfield, New Moon in January, 1918, watercolor and graphite, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Gift of Charles Rand Penney, 1994

The last work of the three is a much less finished drawing, New Moon in January. Here Burchfield zooms in on the windows of a house, giving the viewer a glimpse of the inhabitants’ private lives. On January 18, 1918, he wrote in his journal: “Noon — as I walk along I am amazed how windows in houses glare; light comes from below; … Houses have appearance of being amazed or angry; each one is a new sight; fierce jagged icicles at roof edge; snow roofs against sky — while we see sparrows in swooping flight & hear coal being put in cellars; sour yellows & browns come out intensely on houses; all markings on snow are grey; the sky is yellow grey…”

New Moon in January captures this moment almost exactly – the “sour yellow” emitting from the interior while warm, is a bit off-putting. As you look inside you can see details, such as the alarmingly jagged clock on the mantel, the deep shadows, the light bulb above the table emitting steady sickly rays of yellow light down on to the shadowy characters sat at the table, oblivious to our secretive peeping. Even more menacing are the “fierce jagged icicles at roof edge”, very much like sharp teeth. The icicles become canine fangs framing the window where these shadow creatures sit, adding yet another level of terror to the scene.

But lest you think that Burchfield was only concerned with darkness and the agony of winter, I have not even mentioned the many other works in the show that capture the sunny fields and swaying flowers of the Salem summertime. I will leave those for you to explore, and to see how Burchfield continues to build up a visual vocabulary of emotions, using the beautiful and oftentimes familiar landscapes of North East Ohio.


Charles Burchfield, Sun and Snowstorm, 1917. Watercolor. John Sacret Young Collection.

There will be a curator-led tour of this exhibition on Wednesday, February 27th at 6pm, and Tuesday, April 23, 2019, 12:00pm. You will learn about the period described as his “golden year” and the abstract style that defined his work with Britany Salsbury, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings. Details here.

Charles Burchfield: The Ohio Landscapes, 1915–1920
Sat, 12/22/2018 to Sun, 05/05/2019
Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery | Gallery 010 | Cleveland Museum of Art


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