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Retreat of Winter

Burchfield, C.E.
Retreat of Winter
signed with initials in monogram and dated 'CEB/1950-64' (lower left)—dated again and inscribed with title and 'original sketch "Song of the Brook" -1950' (on the reverse)
watercolor on joined paper laid down on board
40 x 60 in. (101.6 x 152.4 cm.)
Executed in 1950-64.
The artist.
Frank K.M. Rehn Galleries, New York.
Susan and David Workman, New York.
Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1975.
C.E. Burchfield, Journals, February 14, 1962.
J.S. Trovato, Charles Burchfield Catalogue of Paintings in Public and Private Collections, Utica, New York, 1970, p. 306, no, 1298.
J. Tannenbaum, “Charles Burchfield at Kennedy,” Arts Magazine, vol. 48, May 1974, p. 72.
C.E. Burchfield, “April 7, 1964,” in Charles Burchfield's Journals: The Poetry of Place, J.B. Townsend, ed., Albany, New York, 1993, p. 387.
R. Nasgaard, "Charles Burchfield and the Theme of North," p. 35; M. Kammen, "Charles Burchfield and the Procession of the Seasons," p. 48, in N.V. Maciejunes, M. Hall, eds.,The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest, New York, 1997.
Cleveland, Ohio, Cleveland Institute of Art, Charles Burchfield, Paintings, February 13-March 2, 1966.
New York, Frank Rehn Gallery, Charles Burchfield, October 3-29, 1966, no. 7.
Buffalo, New York, Buffalo State Univeristy, Dedication, The Charles Burchfield Center, December 9, 1966, no. 7.
New York, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, Charles Burchfield Memorial Exhibition: Paintings and Drawings, March 1-April 21, 1968, no. 2.
New York, Kennedy Galleries, Inc., Charles E. Burchfield: Watercolors, March 27-April 20, 1974, no. 15, illustrated.
Columbus, Ohio, Columbus Museum of Art; Buffalo, New York, Burchfield-Penney Art Center; Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American Art, The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest, March 23, 1997-January 25, 1998, pp. 35, 48, 228, no. 119, illustrated.
Further Details
We would like to thank Nancy Weekly, Burchfield Scholar at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, for her assistance with cataloguing this lot.

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Lot Essay

Among the most celebrated American watercolorists of the twentieth century, Charles Burchfield whimsically captured the variable sensations of the natural world on paper. As the artist reflected in 1960, “I find myself being drawn almost inexorably into a dream world. It is not that I am trying to escape real life, but that the realm of fantasy offers the true solution of truly evaluating an experience.” (as quoted in Charles Burchfield: Fifty Years as a Painter, New York, 2010, p. 98) His best works, including Retreat of Winter, carry the viewer into the artist’s dreamy appreciation for the natural wonders hidden within the American landscape.

Burchfield’s love of nature began in his childhood as he walked through the woods near his home in Ohio and read essays by naturalists, travel journals by John James Audubon and 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, 2009, p. 9)

Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1921 and continued to seek inspiration from his natural surroundings throughout the rest of his career. Watercolor remained his primary medium, and the artist often revisited works over periods of multiple years to perfect his emotive compositions. Painted from 1950-64, the present work is a quintessential example of Burchfield’s ongoing fascination with the natural world, amplified by its striking scale.

Of the present work, Burchfield recorded in his journal of February 14, 1962: “As I studied the picture, it occurred to me that the dark ravine should have a peter-bird motif and I began to think of all that a Peter-bird used to mean in the Ohio days—cold brilliant sunny days in February or March...the song suggested far away prehistoric times, when natural forces, being unexplainable to man, were given personalities; the dark frown of a ledge in a hollow, with icicles hanging down. Raw dropping banks, snow flattened leaves, a few early plants sending up pointed shoots…” Indeed, here Burchfield seems to transform the aural into the visual, turning the bird’s lively song into bold, swooping outlines and swirling natural forms that recall music. This was a common practice for Burchfield, who was enamored with both birds and insects throughout his life, often incorporating them or his imaginary visual representation of their songs in his works.

A true personification of nature, Retreat of Winter exemplifies the best of Burchfield’s ability as a watercolorist. As the cold of winter calms, with only a few icicles remaining, the warm yellow light of approaching spring illuminates the sky, breaking through the looming clouds. Every element of the scene is pulsing with new life. At center, a bright pink flower blossoms, signaling the warmth to come. When Burchfield paints, “Nature is never still, never quiet, never lit by the sun with a sameness that lasts a second.” (G. Davenport, Charles Burchfield’s Seasons, San Francisco, California, 1994, p. XI) Here, there is a constant sense of movement, from the current of the stream to the branches that seem to blow in a passing wind. The drama of each form is heightened by the expressive use of color combined with Burchfield’s characteristic bold, calligraphic patterns and synesthetic evocations.

Preceding the fantastical landscapes of post-World War II artists like Peter Doig, Nicholas Party, Matthew Wong and Shara Hughes, Burchfield’s Retreat of Winter embodies his admiration for the natural world and dedication to depicting its many facets and seemingly never-ending wonders. In celebrating the end of winter and the dawn of a new season, the present work invites viewers into an untamed, reborn wilderness, welcoming them to enjoy the minutiae of nature as Burchfield did.

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