Frank K.M. Rehn Galleries, New York
Private Collection, Buffalo, New York, 1964
By descent in the family to the present owner
Born in 1893, Charles Burchfield spent his early childhood in the small rural town of Salem, Ohio. As a young boy he enjoyed many afternoons walking through the woods, noting the variety of trees and plants, listening to the sounds of insects and birds and observing the changes in the seasons and the weather. Fascinated by nature, Burchfield recorded his observations by writing in journals and drawing in sketchbooks. "I go to Nature when I want sincerity. In nature we not only find sincerity but also innocence. And when on all sides I am beset with palaver and artifice, I feel the need of drawing a long breath, I ramble the fields" (CEB Journals, Vol. 22, December 25, 1914, p.56).
Passionate about art, writing and literature as a boy, Burchfield studied from 1912-1916 at the Cleveland School of Art where he ultimately decided to become an artist. While at school, his interest in nineteenth century American art and literature exposed him to the essays of naturalist John Burroughs, the travel journals of John Audubon and the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville and John Ruskin. "In Modern Painters III (1856), Ruskin wrote: 'the simplest forms of nature are strangely animated by the sense of the Divine presence; the trees and flowers seem all, in a sort, children of God' "(Nancy Weekly, Charles E. Burchfield: The Sacred Woods, Buffalo, New York, 1993, p.15).
By 1917 Burchfield's direct and faithful observations of nature evolved into a more stylized, abstract mode punctuated with symbolic representations. The spiritual qualities of the natural world and an essential reverence for the mystery of life inform the work. "His linear often zigzag conventions of sounds from nature made visible the chirruping of crickets, the escalating buzz of cicadas, and the namesake song of katydids. His process was synesthetic for the sounds suggested particular visuals patterns. Using repetitive, lyrically geometric patterns, Burchfield animated his landscapes with forms that contrast the organic elements of his mis en scene" (Charles Burchfield: The Sacred Woods, p.37).
A Dream of Butterflies was painted in 1962 after Burchfield had emerged from a period of ill health due to complications from chronic asthma. As his health improved, he began to complete old paintings and to begin new ones. This new work bore a childlike quality with settings composed without regard for logical context. In A Dream of Butterflies, a chorus of oversized vividly patterned butterflies hover above the forest floor and the intense colors of a low flowering bush growing magically amidst a stand of white birches. The bush's uplifted blossoms echo the butterflies' curved fluttering wings, their buzzing energy expressed through gray shadowed outlines.
Burchfield's view of nature is exaggerated by broad brushstrokes of color and over-scaled forms. The butterflies have become nearly the size of bushes and the knots on the birch trees engulf their bark. "In a child's way, Burchfield painted forms that grew from his inner fantasies, isolating and identifying the objects that spurred them into existence. Enormous butterflies become large leaves on a tree; a bird seems to reach up and touch the moon. Moths, flying at moonlight, grow to huge sizes; flowers and boughs defy gravity. As an old man, he understood more clearly the elements of which fantasies are made, and that from a dandelion or a cloud a whole cosmos can be invented" (Mathew Baigell, Charles Burchfield, New York, 1976, p. 197).
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