Works on Paper


The Four Seasons, 1949–1960
Charles Burchfield (United States, 1893–1967)
56 x 48 inches
Festival of Arts Purchase Fund 1961-2-1

In an entry in his journal in 1916, Charles Burchfield scribbled an idea for painting "a tree showing winter at the bottom, Spring in the lower branches, summer in the upper with Autumn crowning the top with fruit." He was long fascinated by the subject of seasonal change, but the late watercolor The Four Seasons is the closest he ever came to realizing the ambition of representing it. The foreground of this wooded scene is a shadowy winter landscape. A rich autumnal passage between the two foremost trees marks not only seasonal transformation but also a transition from the exterior to a bright, cathedral-like interior space and a spring landscape of yellows and greens. In the middle ground, a screen of trees forming pointed Gothic arches opens onto a summer landscape in the distance. The arches also point toward a life-giving sun that imbues the interior space with warmth and energy. As rays of light fall on the foreground trees, their branches fairly burst into orange flame. Burchfield's pictorial language of semi-abstract, calligraphic brushstrokes lends a sense of animate presence to this pictorial meditation on seasonal and spiritual metamorphosis.

In his early work in watercolor, Burchfield's preferred medium, he explored natural subjects around his hometown of Salem, Ohio. While his work of the 1920s and '30s focused on urban subject matter and the "American scene," in the 1940s he returned to painting the natural world, often reworking landscapes he had begun early in his career. The spiritual intensity of these late works places them in a romantic tradition extending back to the nineteenth-century landscapes of painters such as Casper David Friedrich and Thomas Cole.

Text by Michael Gaudio, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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