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Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967)
Property from an Important Southern Collection
Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967)

Cherry Blossom Snow

Details
Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967)
Cherry Blossom Snow
signed with initials in monogram and dated '1917-45' (lower right)--dated again, inscribed with title and '(Original study made May 22, 1917/incorporated in picture)' (on the reverse)
watercolor, gouache and charcoal on joined paper laid down on board
39 ¾ x 56 in. (100.9 x 142.2 cm.)
Executed circa 1917-45.
Provenance
Frank K.M. Rehn, Inc., New York.
Private collection, Michigan, acquired from the above, 1960.
By descent to the present owner.
Literature
J. Gibbs, "Burchfield Reverts Back to Early Fantasy," Art Digest, vol. 20, January 1, 1946, p. 9.
"Less Gloomy Burchfield," Time, January 21, 1946, p. 61.
J. Gibbs, "Carnegie surveys Current U.S. Painting," Art Digest, vol. 21, October 15, 1946, pp. 9-10.
J. O'Connor Jr., "Painting in the United States," Design, vol. 48, December 1946, pp. 9-11.
J.S. Trovato, Charles Burchfield: Catalogue of Paintings in Public and Private Collections, Utica, New York, 1970, p. 214, no. 988.
M. Esterow, Art in America, vol. 58, May 1970, p. 72.
J.I.H. Baur, The Inlander: Life and Work of Charles Burchfield, 1893-1967, Newark, New Jersey, 1984, p. 197.
D. Butler, “Extending the Golden Year: Charles Burchfield,” American Art Review, vol. 5, no. 3, Spring 1993, pp. 112-13, illustrated.
Exhibited
New York, Frank K.M. Rehn, Inc., Charles Burchfield, January 7-21, 1946, no. 3.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art, Painting in the United States, 1946, October 10-December 8, 1946, illustrated.
Tucson, Arizona, The University of Arizona Art Gallery, Charles Burchfield, His Golden Year: A Retrospective Exhibition of Watercolors, Oils and Graphics, November 14, 1965-January 9, 1966, p. 80, no. 75, illustrated.
Clinton, New York, Hamilton College, Emerson Gallery, Extending the Golden Year: Charles Burchfield Centennial, March 6-April 25, 1993, p. 70, no. 34, cover illustration.
Columbus, Ohio, Columbus Museum of Art; Buffalo, New York, Buffalo State College, Burchfield-Penney Art Center; Washington, D.C., National Museum of American Art, The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest, March 23, 1997-January 25, 1998, p. 177, no. 54, illustrated.

Brought to you by

Annie Rosen
Annie Rosen

Lot Essay

We would like to thank Nancy Weekly, Burchfield Scholar at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, for her assistance with cataloguing this lot.


Charles Burchfield is the most celebrated American watercolorist of the twentieth century. The present work, Cherry Blossom Snow, is exemplary of his best, most beautiful and hauntingly emotive efforts in the medium, conveying Burchfield's close commune with and unique vision of the natural world. Works of this caliber inspired Museum of Modern Art director Alfred H. Barr to pronounce of Burchfield's work, "It is impossible to discover any important external influence upon Burchfield's art…One can only conclude that we have in this period of Burchfield's development one of the most isolated and original phenomena in American Art." (as quoted in DC Moore Gallery, Charles Burchfield: Fifty Years as a Painter, New York, 2010, p. 12) It is Burchfield’s originality in capturing on paper the sensations of his surrounding world, as well as his subconscious response to that world, that is on full display in this masterwork.

Burchfield's love of nature began in his childhood as he walked through the woods near his home and read essays by naturalists, travel journals by John James Audubon and eventually stories by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Contemporary artist Robert Gober writes of Burchfield's early passion, "He loved swamps and bogs and marshes. He loved all of nature and was torn as a young man between being an artist and being a nature writer. He liked nothing more than to paint while literally standing in a swamp." (Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, Los Angeles, California, 2009, p. 9) Burchfield first found his inspiration for Cherry Blossom Snow in 1917, in a small patch of nature just beyond the steps of his front porch in Salem, Ohio. During this time, the painter experienced an explosion of inspiration and creativity that resulted in dramatic, important development. Indeed, he referred to 1917 as his “golden year.” With his observations of nature evolving into a more abstracted style, often punctuated with symbolic representations, the young artist brought forth the spiritual qualities he saw in the natural world.

Evidence of this remarkable period of artistic epiphany can be found within the central panel of Cherry Blossom Snow, which Burchfield developed in 1917 and then later expanded upon to create the painting as we know it today. The heart of his composition, the original section encompasses the dark trunk of the cherry tree, its lower limbs and lush green leaves, the angular telegraph pole and the wonderful vignette of golden flowers at lower center. This core watercolor is rendered with remarkable clarity, delineation and deep, rich color tones that seem to pulsate, expanding and contracting in dramatic patterns. Reflecting later about the moment that inspired the present work, Burchfield recalled, “it is ‘a child’s impression of nature…a remembrance of coming home from school at noon and being awed by the sight of such an event.” ("Less Gloomy Burchfield," Time, January 21, 1946, p. 61) His rendition of the scene is indeed full of wonder, as the viewer is mesmerized by the subtle, soft movement of the cherry blossoms as they float to the ground, and unable to look away.

During the 1940s, Burchfield returned to many of the compositions that he had earlier explored, expanding and building upon them both literally and artistically. Works that combine these two important periods of his life are often fantastical, spiritually-charged depictions of nature, and have been lauded as Burchfield's most successful compositions. When later building upon his 1917 work to create Cherry Blossom Snow, Burchfield incorporated countless other elements and a myriad of patterns and motifs, ranging from additional vegetation of grasses, flowers and trees, to birds and his characteristically anthropomorphic man-made structures. The building depicted at right was located diagonally across the street from the Burchfield family home and belonged to the artist’s maternal step-grandmother. It is rendered here in his celebrated spooky, foreboding style and seems to almost supervise the cherry tree’s performance beneath the ominously dark cloud. The dark atmosphere on the right hand of the scene, across the street and removed from the shower of flower petals, is furthered by the sharp-limbed, sparsely-covered tree. The left portion of the arrangement, in contrast to these other additions, is filled with color and pattern, with optimistic elements in the form of a nesting pair of birds and fresh buds on the limbs of a third tree, all bathed in beams of light. These trees of Cherry Blossom Snow, as in many of Burchfield’s works, hold symbolic importance, suggesting death, life and regeneration. As a whole, the entire composition is aglow with energy, immersing the viewer in Burchfield’s unique vision and reverence for his natural subject.

As demonstrated by the present work, the success of Burchfield’s 1940s expansions of earlier compositions is partially thanks to the artistic freedom he was granted by working on an increasingly large scale. Writing about working on Cherry Blossom Snow in 1945, Burchfield recorded in his journal, “All day on ‘Cherry Blossom Snow’ – painting in Cherry Tree. The results at the end of the day were good. What a pleasure it is working on this large scale (40 x 56) I feel free and unhampered; it is as if I could better let the forces of nature control my brush — I sometimes wonder if, after all, I should have a huge wall to decorate; in order to let myself go completely?” (Journals, Vol. 46, April 28, 1945, p. 12)

Burchfield’s method not only evolved in size but also toward more intense color and emphatic brushwork. Matthew Baigell remarks of the artist’s technique on this larger scale, "They gave, in more purely pictorial form, an overall pulsating quality to the paintings. With pigment and brushstroke rather than with identifying detail, Burchfield sought the forces of nature as they coursed through all things. With few distractions, he let the sky, the plants, and the earth throb with equal intensity...Using this technique, Burchfield painted atmosphere as if it had density. Depending on tones and colors, he could suggest the look and feeling of a hot, humid day or the frenzied moments of a snowstorm." (Charles Burchfield, New York, 1976, p. 170)

His exceptional ability to capture the atmosphere of a natural environment is distinctly on exhibition in Cherry Blossom Snow. Burchfield had a particular affinity for changing weather patterns, and sought not only to depict the physical changes taking place outside his door, but also to convey the moods that accompanied those tempestuous transitions. In an October 20th, 1959 letter to friends Dr. and Mrs. Theodor W. Braasch, Burchfield wrote of his seasonal plan for the present work, explaining: “’Autumnal Fantasy’ was one of a group of four pictures that I thought of as comprising a ‘Symphony of the Seasons’ ? I even fondly imagined them being sold only as a group and staying that way. First Movement ? Allegro ‘Cherry-Blossom Snow’; Second ‘Adagio ? ‘Sphynx and the Milky Way’ [Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, New York]; Third ? Scherzo: ‘Autumnal Fantasy’ [Private Collection]; Fourth: Allegro Vivace ? ‘The Blizzard.’ [Private Collection]”

Choosing Cherry Blossom Snow as his Allegro, a musical movement that is meant to be played very quickly, in this proposed season series is particularly telling of Burchfield’s intent for the painting. In fact, the work perfectly lives up to the notion, which is based on the Italian word for "cheerful" from the Latin root meaning "lively or brisk." The present composition unquestionably embodies all of these feelings and conveys the entire conception of spring, and its shower of blossoms, perhaps as no other work by Burchfield does. When the painting was exhibited at the Carnegie Institute, where it won an award, the success of Burchfield’s efforts prompted one period reviewer to sum up the composition perfectly: “Burchfield epitomizes spring in Cherry Blossom Snow.” (J. Gibbs, "Carnegie surveys Current U.S. Painting," Art Digest, vol. 21, October 15, 1946, pp. 9-10)

Sadly, the series of four works composing a seasonal symphony that Burchfield had imagined was not complete in time to be exhibited, and Cherry Blossom Snow was instead shown alongside Midsummer Caprice (Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio) and August Twilight (location unknown). As a member of the original season group, the present work represented the perfect transitional painting to bridging the spare, white The Blizzard and the deep, dark brooding summer night of Sphynx and the Milky Way. As a member of the new ‘movement’ actually exhibited, Cherry Blossom Snow might represent a later spring moment in a more subtle transition between the spare, but highly saturated Midsummer Caprice and the deep forms of August Twilight. Regardless, it is clear that as the initial painting in each notable series, Burchfield strongly believed Cherry Blossom Snow to be a grand success.

Remarkably, first imagined just over one hundred years ago in 1917, the awed impression of nature that originally inspired Cherry Blossom Snow, and lent it significance as the centerpiece of two intended series by the artist, maintains its strong visual and emotional impact to viewers today. As in all his best paintings, in the present work, Burchfield does not merely transcribe nature, but rather acts as a conduit to capture on paper its life force and unpredictability. He seizes both his sensory and spiritual response to the natural world during the yearly season of regeneration, and conveys it with unmatched originality. Cherry Blossom Snow is a triumphant painting, a radiant composition, rife with the sensations and feelings that are characteristic of the greatest efforts in art.

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