Charles Burchfield: Path to Solitude explores one regional artist's attempts to capture the essence of nature. | Art Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Charles Burchfield: Path to Solitude explores one regional artist's attempts to capture the essence of nature.

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Charles Burchfield called it his "golden year." In 1917, the Ohio-born painter created more than 400 poetic, evocative portayals of nature. These inspired him throughout his life and are considered among the most successful works by an artist widely known for depicting the effects of industrialism on small-town America.

On view at the Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts is Charles Burchfield: Path to Solitude, comprising approximately 18 of Burchfield's pivotal nature-themed works. The intense, colorful and moody landscapes were painted either between 1916 and 1920 or after 1943 -- when he returned to the watercolors created in his youth, reworking and enlarging many of them by adding sections of paper to the originals.

The exhibition, whose chief curator is Kimberly Koller-Jones, includes three important works from the early period: "Luminous Tree" (1917), "Moon Through Young Sunflowers" (1916) and "Shaft of Light" (1917). In these, Burchfield brushed watercolor directly onto the paper, ceasing his earlier practice of beginning with a pencil sketch. As a result, the paintings are lyrical and free, often pushing the boundaries of representation as areas become abstracted. In the rarely seen "Shaft of Light," loose, sweeping brush marks are the backdrop to a dark, looming tree and tree stump painted in a flat, abstracted and stylized manner. A shaft of light from the sky cuts through the scene, a familiar trope utilized by Burchfield to represent the idea of God's presence in nature and the artist's own pantheistic leanings.

Meanwhile, "Song of the Cicada," a pastoral watercolor from 1951, is a wonderful example of Burchfield's use of symbols to depict the range of senses awakened as one experiences nature. Undulating, wave-like shapes are "emitted" from the field in the painting, and wiggly lines surround trees huddled in the right side of the composition. At the bottom of the painting, flowers emerge from abstracted, pastel-colored swirls. The symbols suggest movement, wind and sound waves. A quote from Burchfield provides insight: "An artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so, he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him."

The most impressive painting at the Hoyt is the large-scale "Solitude," begun in 1918, later modified by Burchfield and completed around 1963. This melancholy painting depicts a pool of water surrounded by craggy cliffs and a variety of gloomy-looking trees. Also on view is an intriguing collection of 38 conte crayon-on-paper preparatory sketches for "Solitude." These give us a remarkable glimpse into Burchfield's thought processes and modes of working.

Often included in these loose sketches are notes referring to symbols Burchfield used to represent a particular mood or feeling. In 1917, Burchfield created a catalogue of shapes that he associated with powerful, and often dour, emotions -- for example, a dark and pointed shape symbolizes evil. Notes scrawled on "Study for Solitude (Fantastic Grotesque Mood)," indicate the artist's desire to "Have all sorts of evil glowers [sic] under rocks ..." Not surprisingly, dark, pointed forms take shape in the sketch and also appear in the finished "Solitude."

Burchfield, a contemporary of Edward Hopper, was born in Ashtabula, Ohio, in 1893. He studied at the Cleveland School of Art and then moved to upstate New York, where he worked as a wallpaper designer. Burchfield's depictions of storefronts, railroad yards and Victorian architecture garnered him representation by the Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries, in New York, in 1929, allowing him to resign from his design job and paint full time.

It is interesting that Burchfield attributes his realistic period, during which he became known as a Midwestern regionalist, to having served briefly in the Army at the end of World War I. After this experience, he felt he had lost his romantic vision of the landscape, apparent in his intensely creative "early" period (1916-20); his fortunate return to this subject matter latter in life gave us the extraordinary, and completed, "Solitude."

This well-organized exhibition provides a thorough education on Burchfield and his innovative approach to representing nature's transcendences.

Charles Burchfield: Path to Solitude continues through Feb. 28. The Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts, 124 E. Leasure Ave. New Castle, Pa. 724-652-2882 or www.hoytartcenter.org

The shining: Charles Burchfield's "Late Winter Radiance" (1961-62). Image courtesy of the Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts.
  • The shining: Charles Burchfield's "Late Winter Radiance" (1961-62). Image courtesy of the Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts.

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