Sweet Pea Mood is a large and complex work executed in 1917, a watershed year in Charles Burchfield's career. It was in this year that the artist began to fully develop his philosophy of incorporating whimsical representations of nature to bring a deeper spiritual meaning into his compositions. Over his lifetime, Burchfield produced a body of work marked by his intense response to nature expressed through his personal symbolic vocabulary. With its dramatic composition and high degree of finish, Sweet Pea Mood is a prime example from an important transitional phase in the artist's career.
Burchfield was born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio in 1893. A shy child, he often spent long, solitary hours exploring the nearby forests. These walks through the woods evoked feelings of pleasure, terror, fear, and joy in the young boy. This passion for nature in his youth would come to inspire him and to influence nearly all of his adult work.
After graduating from high school, Burchfield studied at the Cleveland School of Art where he was influenced by the flattened, highly decorative motifs of Chinese scrolls and Japanese prints. His interest in nature continued while in Cleveland, where he read essays by the naturalist John Burroughs, the travel journals of John Audubon and later, stories by Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Ruskin. Burchfield shared with these writers and artists a fascination with nature. Burchfield was particularly influenced by the writing of the nineteenth century English artist and philosopher Ruskin, who wrote an observation which could serve as a credo for Burchfield's art: "The simplest forms of nature are strangely animated by the sense of a divine presence; the trees and flowers seem all, in a sort, children of God." (as quoted in N. Weekly, Charles E. Burchfield: The Sacred Woods, Buffalo, New York, 1993, p. 15)
Upon graduation from Cleveland in 1916, Burchfield moved to New York, where he received a scholarship to the National Academy of Design. In 1917 at the age of twenty-four, having returned to Salem, Ohio, Burchfield experienced what he would later call his "golden year," during which his observations of nature evolved into a more stylized, abstract mode punctuated with symbolic representations. The spiritual qualities of the natural world are now represented clearly in his 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 synthetic for the sounds suggested particular visual patterns. Using repetitive, lyrically geometric patterns, Burchfield animated his landscapes with forms that contrast the organic elements of his mise en scene." (Charles Burchfield: The Sacred Woods, p. 37) Burchfield was so artistically charged in 1917 that at times he produced watercolors at a rate of two or three a week in an explosion of inspiration.
Sweet Pea Mood encapsulates the senses of wonder and mystery that Burchfield experienced as a child. The work is bifurcated: on the left, a dirt road parallels a row of wooden houses that recede in a horizon line towards a fence in the middle ground. A dark, stormy sky and half covered sun loom above. On the right, a fantastical forest of trees, bushes and over-scaled flowers intermingle in a dense layering of visual forms. The sky above is clear, and bright. Whereas the proportions and horizon line in the left half of the work are natural and realistic, there is no sense of distance or perspective in the wooded area. Rather, the vegetation and trees merge together into one large pattern, constantly changing and moving. The composition seems to mirror Burchfield's youthful impressions of his environment and his impassioned attempts to depict on paper the deeper core of nature.
Sweet Pea Mood exemplifies Burchfield's extraordinary ability to combine the spiritual and the natural, bringing the landscape alive through his brushwork and technique. Mathew Baigell extols the artist's unique style: "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 cloud a whole cosmos can be invented." (Charles Burchfield, New York, 1976, p. 197) With Sweet Pea Mood, Burchfield shares a vision of nature translated by his art into a modernist vocabulary of his own making--one with which he sought to capture the mysterious and spiritual power of his native Ohio landscape.