By Mary Heyl
Although it’s sad to see summer fade away, the change of seasons in Western New York is a sight to behold. No one knew this better than watercolorist Charles E. Burchfield, one of the best known American painters of his time. During his career, which spanned more than 50 years, Burchfield created over 1,400 paintings, many of which capture the beauty of the region’s landscapes at various times throughout the year. Experience Burchfield’s incredible work, along with the artwork of many other Western New York artists at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State.
Born and raised in Ohio in 1893, Burchfield began painting at a young age and was inspired by the work of American nature writers, like Henry David Thoreau and Willa Cather. Burchfield graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1916, where he was heavily influenced by watercolor painter Henry Keller. He continued painting as a young man, and upon his engagement in 1921, Burchfield moved to Buffalo where he was employed as a designer by the H.M. Birge wallpaper company.
Eager to support himself and his growing family (by 1928, he was married with a fifth child on the way), Burchfield approached a gallerist about selling his work through the Rehn gallery in New York. This new venture was a success and Burchfield’s paintings sold well, even through the Great Depression years. In 1930, Burchfield’s career skyrocketed when his early watercolors were featured in an exhibit at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.
Over the course of his career, Burchfield’s work was featured in galleries such as Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute, Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum, the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the Musee de Jeu de Paume in Paris. Not only was Burchfield a prolific painter, creating hundreds of works, but he also taught courses periodically at the Art Institute of Buffalo, Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Ohio University, Athens, and the University of Minnesota, Duluth. In 1966, the Charles Burchfield Center, a museum dedicated to his work, was inaugurated at the SUNY Buffalo campus, just one year before Burchfield passed away at his home in Buffalo.
His legacy lives on at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, which was renamed in 1994 in honor of the generous donations of Charles Rand Penney, who contributed the largest private collection of works by Burchfield, including publications and hand-crafted domestic objects from the Roycroft community. In 1998, it was proposed that a new museum building be created for the Burchfield Penney, and after 10 years of planning, fundraising and construction, the new art center opened on Nov. 22, 2008. Since then, the museum has seen over 300,000 visitors from all over the world, and in 2009, travel editors of the New York Times included the Burchfield Penney Art Center as one of the “Top 44 Places in the World to Visit.”
Last year, the Burchfield Penney celebrated 50 years as the Museum for Western New York Arts. Experience the museum’s golden anniversary in person by viewing the “50 in 50: Fifty Works for Fifty Years” exhibit, which chronicles Western New York’s cultural history with works from each decade from 1849 through 2017.
Other current exhibits include “Community: Immigrant and Refugee Artists in Western New York,” “Glass within Glass: the Magic of the Trabucco Studio,” and Buffalo artist Michael Bosworth’s “The House has Gone Down and the Lamps are Out,” which explores rural American landscapes. Of course, the current Burchfield exhibit is a must-see: now through Nov. 26, “A Dream World of Imagination: Charles E. Burchfield’s Golden Year” portrays Burchfield’s work from 1917, which he fondly referred to as the “golden year” of his career.
Plan your visit to the Burchfield Penney Art Center today! The museum, which is located on the SUNY Buffalo campus at 1300 Elmwood Avenue, is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for students. To learn more, visit www.burchfieldpenney.org and follow Burchfield Penney Art Center on Facebook.