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Charles Burchfield’s Buffalo, Part I: How Buffalo saw Burchfield

Let there be no doubt — Charles E. Burchfield loved his adopted home of 46 years.

“I can say without reservation that I love Buffalo in its entirety — and could not possibly exhaust its picture possibilities in several lifetimes,” he told a reporter in 1941.

Already an artist selling the occasional watercolor painting in New York City, Charles Burchfield’s time in Buffalo started in 1921 when he took a job here as a designer at a wallpaper company.

Over the next 45 years, mostly from his West Seneca home, Burchfield’s innovative use of watercolor helped that once-marginalized medium gain stature and respect as his place among America’s finest artists was cemented.

Xx One of the most prolific of the American Realism painters with works numbering well into the thousands, Charles Burchfield came to Buffalo from Ohio in 1921 to work in the design department at MH Birge & Sons, 390 Niagara Street. The Niagara Street facility was Birge’s home from 1880 to 1982. The where the factory once stood is now home to a Rite Aid and McDonald’s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

One of the most prolific of the American Realism painters with works numbering well into the thousands, Charles Burchfield came to Buffalo from Ohio in 1921 to work in the design department at MH Birge & Sons, 390 Niagara St. The Niagara Street facility was Birge’s home from 1880 to 1982. The spot where the factory once stood is now home to a Rite-Aid and McDonald’s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

In 1926, Burchfield was first introduced at length to Buffalo newspaper readers with a headline calling him an internationally known artist who carries a lunch pail.

Xx One of the most prolific of the American Realism painters with works numbering well into the thousands, Charles Burchfield came to Buffalo from Ohio in 1921 to work in the design department at MH Birge & Sons, 390 Niagara Street. The Niagara Street facility was Birge’s home from 1880 to 1982. The where the factory once stood is now home to a Rite Aid and McDonald’s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

(Buffalo Stories archives)

Charles Burchfield, in front of one of his paintings, 1961. Buffalo News archives

Charles Burchfield, in front of one of his paintings, 1961. (Buffalo News archives)

Burchfield, the article says, is the only artist in Buffalo “who, despite (that) the Metropolitan Museum of Art has bought one of his paintings, goes to his daily job as a designer for a local wallpaper firm, carrying a lunch pail.”

If living in Buffalo most of his life and capturing so much of Western New York’s natural and urban beauty didn’t make Burchfield “a Buffalo guy,” his lunch pail approach certainly sounds like Everyman 716.

Noting his almost excruciating modesty in talking about his work and the plaudits he’d received — a continuous current throughout his career – the Courier-Express continued, “To him who conceives a noted artist as a long-haired, be-smoked individual, who, pallet and smudged brushes in hand, gazes dreamily out of a cobwebbed attic window, Burchfield is a disillusionment.”

There may have been some bit of whimsical artist in evidence when Burchfield said he finds inspiration in “old houses that have the atmosphere of old worlds and old lives about them,” but whimsy was not the feeling the reporter was left with.

Interviewing Burchfield in his office at Birge, the conversation between reporter and artist ended when the 5:30 whistle blew and Burchfield had to catch his bus to West Seneca.

Early coverage of Burchfield in The Buffalo Evening News (Buffalo Stories archives)

Early coverage of Burchfield in The Buffalo Evening News. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Still, the quiet, humble man was lauded in one 1935 headline as “the Gardenville genius” who is “said to have changed the direction of American painting.” The occasion for the mention was his winning a Carnegie Institute award for “The Shed in the Swamp.” While Burchfield was in Pittsburgh to accept the award in person, his wife and five children were gathered around the radio in their West Seneca living room to hear the live broadcast of the announcement of the award.

The Shed in the Swamp, as published in 1935. (Buffalo Stories archives)

"The Shed in the Swamp," as published in 1935. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The Courier-Express article goes on to quote at length a story from Harper’s Weekly, which heaps praise upon Burchfield as a uniquely American artist who refused to “grovel before Matisse (or) Picasso” and was “never taken in by the flummery of Cubism.”

“Burchfield faced life, and extracted from it an art that might justly be called his own,” wrote Thomas Craven in Harper’s, quoted in the Courier-Express. “On the strength of things accomplished, he must be called one of our best artists. … His example changed the direction of American painting.”

Burchfield celebrates his 70th birthday with his wife Bertha, carrying himself in the manner of a milkman or an accountant rather than one of the country’s most celebrated artists, whose works hung in most major galleries and The White House.

Burchfield celebrates his 70th birthday with his wife, Bertha, carrying himself in the manner of a milkman or an accountant rather than one of the country’s most celebrated artists. His works hung in most major galleries and in the White House.

At the same time, though, feature photos printed in both The News and the Courier-Express show Burchfield looking a lot like a Western New York garden-variety uncle making his own frames for his paintings.

A 1937 passing reference in a Buffalo newspaper story about another local artist calls Burchfield “the most important artist within several hundred, possibly several thousand miles of Buffalo.”

But, says Burchfield scholar Nancy Weekly at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, rarely did he leave a discussion of his artwork more satisfied than the time late in life when he packed some artwork into his car and spoke to a classroom of sixth-graders.

The reflections of 11-year-olds warmed his soul as much — if not more — than any critical success. Upon receiving a Christmas card designed by the child who sent it, Burchfield responded with a note signed, “From one artist to another.” And he meant it.

About 1,000 were on hand on Dec. 9, 1966, to lionize “the tall, dignified and soft-spoken man” at the dedication of the center that still bears his name. The artist himself was there to cut the ribbon on the center that day, but he died only a month later while having lunch at a West Seneca restaurant with his wife.

In his will, Burchfield established a foundation for the support and education of art through the Burchfield Center.

Charles Burchfield (right), looks a bit uncomfortable with all the attention at the opening of the center bearing his name, December, 1966. (Buffalo News archives)

Charles Burchfield (right), looks a bit uncomfortable with all the attention at the opening of the center bearing his name in December 1966. (Buffalo News archives)

In remembering Burchfield shortly after his death, Dr. Ralph W. Loew, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Main Street, wrote, “Our age needs those who can see the authentic realities … (he) painted their pictures in the gray days and challenged us when we were willing to settle for complacency.”

In a citation presented in commemoration of the opening of the Burchfield center, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “In his paintings of the American scene, his brush endowed the ordinary with universal greatness. During a period of urbanization and industrialization, he focused our vision on the eternal greatness of living things.”

That’s Burchfield the artist, but Burchfield the man was summed up in a 1927 News article about the painter, at a time when he had gained world renown but was still designing wallpaper in a West Side factory every day. Even as fame and some measure of fortune came his way, he remained mostly as described:

“(H)e’s still carrying the dinner pail, literally if not figuratively. … Charles Burchfield has always been a worker, and will always be a worker. He’s at it all day long and far into the night. And he doesn’t seem to tire of the easel. … It’s work; everlasting work, and the rewards are in his sights. Posterity can wait. In olden days, an artist would have been too proud to carry a dinner pail.”

More: Torn-down Tuesday: Charles Burchfield’s Buffalo, Part II

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