Charles Burchfield's Journals

The Poetry of Place

By Charles Burchfield
Edited by J. Benjamin Townsend

Hardcover : 9780791409916, 768 pages, November 1992


The personal journals of Charles Burchfield reveal the unique vision and approach to life that established him as America's preeminent watercolorist and painter of nature. When he died in 1967 at the age of seventy-three, Burchfield had filled sixty-seven bound notebooks with his personal entries, comprising some 10,000 pages. He included sketches, doodles, quotations, clippings, weather notes, and other marginalia and insertions offering a rare glimpse into the artist's life. Presented here in book form, the edited journals are organized thematically. The editor's introductions place each section in biographical and art historial context. The material is annotated and informed by the previously unpublished archives of the Burchfield Art Center, and complemented by 41 color plates of Burchfield's paintings and 131 black and white illustrations.

These journals constitute a full, detailed history of an American artist's life, presenting a culmination of two major literary genres: the nineteenth century spiritual autobiography and the American nature journal. Burchfield's notes feature the activities, daily sketching trips, nature observations, personal encounters, artistic growth, and the religious conflicts of a major American artist. Beginning with the summer before his third year in high school and continuing up to nine months before his death, the journals are as complete a record of Burchfield's thoughts and career as Delacroix's journals or Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo are of theirs.

Burchfield was born in 1893 in Ashtabula, Ohio, and grew up in Salem, a small town in the northeast section of the state. He received his art training at the Cleveland School of Art. After a year's tour of duty in the Army, he moved to Buffalo, New York and went to work as Assistant Designer and later Director of the design department of M. H. Birge and Sons Wallpaper Company.

When in 1929 Frank K. M. Rehn of New York offered to become his art dealer, Burchfield resigned from Birge in order to devote himself fully to painting. Over the years his accomplishments included one-person exhibitions in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Carnegie Museum of Art, and Corcoran Gallery of Art. Among the awards he received were the Chancellor's medal from the University of Buffalo, the Merit medal (gold) from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Dawson Memorial Medal, the Metropolitan Museum of Art watercolor award, and a doctorate of Fine Arts from Harvard University. In 1966 the Charles Burchfield Center was dedicated at Buffalo State College.

J. Benjamin Townsend is Professor Emeritus of English and former Chairman of the Department of Art and Art History at State University of New York at Buffalo. He was the founding Assistant Director at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery, and is the author of John Davidson, Poet of Armageddon; 100, a history of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery; and numerous articles and catalogue essays on twentieth-century American art.


"It is wonderful reading. The editor's comments are interesting, but they also provide a counterpoint to Burchfield's writing, giving the whole a wonderful texture.

"It's interesting in many ways: the beautiful images of nature and Burchfield's observations, the historical observations (sugar mapling in a barn, for example), the art world gossip, the insights into Burchfield's personality and painting, and the sense of the period.

"One of the most interesting and significant things is the placing of Burchfield in the context and tradition of English romantic poetry. The discussions are very stimulating. It is certainly central to American Studies, and important to art history. " — Marlene Park, City University of New York

"Burchfield was one of our country's important artists, and his writings will come as a surprise to most people. Here is a vast body of perceptive thought which will delight Americanists, artists, lepidopterists, historians, bird watchers, musicologists, and all readers who are interested in what it was like growing up before World War I and growing old after World War II. In his musing about other artists, serving on art juries, working for a living, observing nature, falling out of love with once favored composers, and coping with old age, Burchfield doesn't pull any punches.

"The real surprise is the poetry of Burchfield's writing style. For example: (on describing the opening of flowers), they 'seemed as tho they were worshipping the bright sunshine'; (on the cry of the bluebird) 'The cry is a remote one and seems born out of the wind'; (on flowering weeds) they are the 'Huck Finns of humanity'; (on the war situation of 1941) 'we all feel the ghastliness of the present situation, but not all artists can express it'; and in 1958, 'Better to look into the face of the first hepatica than land on Mars!' " — Kenneth C. Lindsay, Professor Emeritus of Art History, State University of New York at Binghamton

"It is a pleasure to read Burchfield, to get inside the mind of this very private artist. " — Greta Berman, The Juilliard School