The Art of Being Wooed

Charles Burchfield writing at his desk, by William Doran (Photo: Charles E. Burchfield Archives, Gift of William Doran)

For years I had Charles Burchfield misfiled under “Depression Era Regional Artists” along with Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood. It wasn’t a file I spent much time rifling through, so my error wasn’t discovered until I saw the show of his work curated by artist Robert Gober in 2010 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Whitney in New York. (An earlier post detailing that revelatory show is Burchfield on my Mind.)

Everything changed when I saw his work in a full continuum. In just one day Burchfield catapulted from an obscure regionalist whose work I barely knew to one of my favorite artists. My passion for him has only increased with time.

Burchfield’s Autumnal Fantasy

While I was in Chautauqua New York for the opening of my show, On the Surface: Outward Appearances (details here), I was able to see two exhibitions that featured Burchfield and his work. One was serendipitously upstairs from On the Surface at the Strohl Arts Center—The Paintings and Writings of Charles E. Burchfield. By comingling both visual and verbal Burchfieldisms, this show makes the best case yet for his true identity as a visionary, a nature mystic, and a channel. Once you get that it is so obvious, especially when reading the words he wrote.

With the exception of Robert Gober,* art historians have not embraced the deeply mystical aspects of Burchfield’s work. He is not included in the list of visionary artists along with the likes of William Blake, Gustave Moreau and Morris Graves. Burchfield doesn’t look the part, that’s for certain: his unpretentious midwestern demeanor just doesn’t suggest “mystic” to anyone. Visiting the Burchfield Penny Museum in Buffalo—which boasts the largest collection of his work—I found the curatorial commentary rather tone deaf to the rhapsodic quality of Burchfield’s connection with the natural world. The portrait of him that they seem to draw is one of a benign, hard working landscape artist who had a peculiar tendency towards extra swirls which they refer to as “heat waves”.

I get it. Burchfield’s ability to see the auric fields that exist around every tree, flower and star is not an aesthetic category that is easy to explain. I had the extraordinary advantage of viewing his work with my friend Linda who possesses a similar ability, so her immediate recognition of what Burchfield was up to reinforced my own intuitive sense of his gift of mystical seeing.

A few of Burchfield’s hand scrawled messages included in the Chautauqua show read like mystical pronouncements, as instructions channeled to him directly. One that I did not photograph captures the essence of Burchfield’s seminal assignment:

Give yourself up entirely to nature. Let nature woo you.

That line couples nicely with another Burchfield quote:

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.

Given the increased interest in Burchfield and his work, I am certain there are several researchers working on what will become the newly updated and definitive biography of his life. I hope any future retelling will include a more robust recognition of Burchfield’s deeply mystical and visionary nature.

Handwritten notes from the Burchfield exhibit at Chautauqua:


“You cannot grow unless you attempt things beyond your powers.”


“It is up to you now, to carry on. Are you equal to the task?”


“You are completely dead – Devoid of any emotional attitude toward nature Wake up – be bold, make bold caricatures & conventionalizations.”

*Robert Gober is the one voice that does acknowledge Birchfield’s otherworldliness. In his catalog for the show, Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, Gober goes so far as to describe Burchfield’s work as “immersed in what he perceived as the complicated beauty and spirituality of nature…often imbued with visionary, apocalyptic, and hallucinatory qualities.”

11 Replies to “The Art of Being Wooed”

  1. Deborah,

    I get it, as well. Thank you for again introducing me to a larger world than the egocentric one in which I live. Birchfield’s work appeals to me. In a rare moment of realization, I can see that I am not alone in a very broad feeling of anthropomorphism which haunts the very silly images of my own struggling and inexperienced drawings. He is very good. I am not. But what fun! meantime… have done it again! You are my pipeline to the art world, and once again – heaven-sent in my life!

    …..i believe that the largest tree in the painting is carrying the melody. It appears that it should be the bass tone, and that is fitting, because the bass note in most chords is the very harmonic foundation for that chord. There is a harmony between the trees which is supported by his rendering. I wonder which very profound chord they are tuning up to this morning…..hmmmm…..a full and beautiful one!


    ( you don’t have to feel obligated to post this “out of nowhere” comment. I just needed to send it to you.)…

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Sweet Ann! Thank you for this. I am so moved by the way you connect and how open your heart and eyes are to these larger domains. You inspire me.

  2. So delighted you wrote about Burchfield, Deborah. The more I read about visionary artists, the more I find of value in their work, and I’ve been drawn to it for a while now. In some sense, they serve a kind of Shakespearean Fool’s role, and we are wise to look to them for truths discovered no where else.

  3. Wonderful. To only have had the opportunity to stand there at the Burchfield Penny with you and Linda! Heat waves is so Buffalonian for auras! And we didn’t experience too many heat waves in Buffalo either 🙂
    Thank you, as always.

  4. Thank you – I’ve been hoping to find something about this exhibition! I would like to go ~

  5. A pleasant surprise to see this post about Burchfield. I live in his territory, WNY, close to his grave and where he had lived. The Burchfield-Penney is nearby, too. Nancy Weekly, years ago, wrote Charles E. Burchfield: The Sacred Woods, which, indeed, discusses his visionary nature. I think Burchfield fits Fr Richard Rohr’s definition of “mystic”, one who goes beyond systems of belonging to inner experience; it seems those notes, above, he wrote for himself, say something about his struggle allowing the mystical to carry him in his art.

    A question: how long is the On the Surface show at Chautauqua running?

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      James, thank you for this. I have not seen a copy of The Sacred Woods but I’ll see if I can find it through my library. That title would suggest that Weekly does in fact get how deep it went for him. And thank you for the Rohr definition of a mystic. I’m a fan of his work but did not know of that insight.

      The “On the Surface” show runs through August 19. Thanks for your contribution.

  6. dipittsburgh says:

    I agree Deb, everything in his landscape has an essence and a being, the very water in the stream and every dead fallen leaf has a presence that is made known. You really can’t judge people’s insides by their outsides.

  7. Thank you! Such an interesting & beautiful post!

  8. I had the pleasure of seeing the exhibits at Chautauqua, including Burchfield’s early, “regional” work, and On the Surface. Burchfield’s painting “Solitude” strikes me with his mystic depth (it seemed somewhat out of place with the other paintings), his mindfulness of the difficult moods of the earth without being pulled down into depression. And, Deborah, I enjoyed your beautiful paintings, in particular, Managalat; the surface needs direct experiencing, sight and touch (well, I didn’t touch but I imagined what that surface might feel like), that wouldn’t be seen in a photograph. I associate these two works, yours and Burchfield’s, uncertain why.

    1. Thanks so much James. I was so grateful for your kind words.

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