If there’s anything I love about this time of year, it’s the days when I happen I to walk down the stairs and look out the window just as the sun starts to disappear towards the other side of the park.
And on the days when the air is crisp and the clouds are high, the last gasp of sun splashes honey and orange hued final breaths of light against the houses just outside that window.
My soul is warmed in a way that the sun can’t just by itself on a brutish frigid day– the way nature projects light and life on this pedestrian everyday scene literally just out my window.
I’m moved to wonder, if these were some of the observations that moved a favorite artist to create a favorite painting.
Even before I knew who Charles Burchfield was and that this painting is a composite of a couple of different places around Buffalo, I’ve always loved “Six O’Clock,” and something about it speaks to me– the same something I hear calling from outside my stairway window on late winter afternoons.
I usually resist the urge to take a photo of my special scene. Creating a digital image with the same swipe and click I make dozens of times a day can’t possibly capture the serendipity of it. Taking the photo even actually defeats the fleeting nature of the glowing lights bringing at least visual warmth to the cold.
In much the same way most Buffalo men of the era grabbed their lunch pail in the morning and worked until the whistle blew, so did Charles Burchfield.
He was a soldier during World War I, fighting the enemy with his paintbrush. Burchfield was on the team designing America’s earliest efforts at camouflage. He moved to Buffalo in 1921 to work as a designer at Birge’s wallpaper factory on Niagara Street. Even after he left the working world in 1929 and began making a living as an artist, Burchfield took a working man’s approach to create art reflective of the life of the working man.
At the top of the page is Charles Burchfield’s “Rainy Night” (1929-30). This photo was one of many taken by artist James Vullo in the mid-’70s depicting the real-life places in Burchfield’s paintings and sketches. (Charles E. Burchfield Archives) Below, the intersection of Ellicott and Broadway as it looks today.
“Charles Burchfield is a magic name that elevates Buffalo to eminence in the contemporary art world,” wrote Anne McIlhenney Matthews in the Buffalo Courier-Express in 1960.
“Buffalo basks in reflected glory in the world of art galleries and collections as the place where the world-famous watercolorist resides and whose glorified terrain he transfers to timeless, wonderful — and expensive — pictures.”
Burchfield told Matthews, “I try to present the glory of God in nature,” and pointed to one of his favorite paintings — one he gave to his wife and hung in their living room. “For the Beauty of the Earth” is the title of the painting, and the first line of a Lutheran hymn.
“The world is so ravishingly beautiful and I try to put it on paper,” continued Burchfield. “Particularly Western New York. I feel that there is enough scenic beauty in this area to keep me busy for a thousand years.”
“Street Scene,” 1940-47. Below, James Vullo’s photo of the Genesee Street building.
This painting came from the same block, just facing the other direction.
“The Market at Christmas Time” (1929-41), shows the old Chippewa Market with St. Michael’s in the distance. While St. Michael’s still stands, the building was heavily damaged in a 1954 fire. (Charles E. Burchfield Archives)
Burchfield called the Electric Building “one of the finest buildings in Buffalo or anywhere.” He painted “Buildings and Street Scene” in 1940. James Vullo photographed the area in the mid-’70s, including the marquee sign pointing to the entrance of the Century Theater around the corner on Main Street. (Charles E. Burchfield Archives)
Burchfield’s “Street Vista in Winter,” 1957-60. (Charles E. Burchfield Archives) Below: Today’s view up Linwood Avenue between Summer and Barker.
Burchfield ventured into all parts of the city, including South Buffalo. Above: Burchfield’s “Silver Light,” ca. 1940. Below: Vullo’s photo of the Stevenson Street bridge, Stevenson and South Legion, mid ’70s.
The Burchfield-Penney Center also has curated a history pin site showing these and other Burchfield painting locations.
As Buffalonians, we are proud that Charles Burchfield has long had a place among America’s great artists and helped usher in a new era of American art.
But you don’t have to be an art lover to appreciate the lost and almost foreign-feeling past life of Buffalo captured by Burchfield’s brush in his nearly five decades here.
Many of Burchfield’s cityscapes were recognizable representations of places in the City of Buffalo and surrounding Western New York communities, and many more Buffalo locales served as inspiration and played bit parts in paintings made up of many places that Burchfield had seen.
One of Burchfield’s most famous paintings is “Six O’Clock,” shown at the top of the page. It was instantly recognizable in homes across New York State in 1972 when the painting appeared on the cover of 11.4 million New York Telephone phone books. Two Western New York locations served as inspiration for the work—the one shown here is the back of his next door neighbor’s house in Gardenville. The row of houses was inspired by a block of old homes on William Street. (Charles E. Burchfield Archives/James J. Vullo photo)
When he first came to Buffalo in 1921, Burchfield moved around the West Side and Allentown quite a bit. When he wrote a letter to the editor of the Courier-Express in 1925, he used 459 Franklin St. — a few doors from the corner of Allen Street — as his address. He also lived at 124 Whitney Place, and then two addresses — 109 and then 170 — on Mariner Street in Allentown.
But Burchfield’s famous address was “Gardenville.” For more than 40 years, he lived a few houses in from the corner of Clinton and Union in West Seneca. Dozens of works sprung from landmarks near that intersection, including part of “Six O’Clock” at the top of the page.
Sadly, many of the structures which live on in Burchfield’s paintings are gone. But through the work of another artist, a link between a handful of the most famous paintings and the real life structures that inspired them does exist.
In the mid ’70s, James Vullo, artist and great admirer of Burchfield, set out to photograph the Buffalo locations made famous in Charles Burchfield’s works. As many of these places are now vacant lots, Vullo’s photos help unite the world of Burchfield’s art with the photographic reality of city life in Buffalo of the last century and the reality of living in Buffalo today.
Another of Burchfield’s most famous paintings is 1933’s “Ice Glare.”
Ice Glare, 1933. (Charles E. Burchfield Archives)
The painting depicted a rather true-to-life representation of a house at the corner of Clinton and Lord streets in Buffalo, as captured by Vullo in the mid ’70s.
House depicted in “Ice Glare,” as photographed by James Vullo. (Charles E. Burchfield Archives/James J. Vullo photo)
Today, the corner is a vacant lot.
Even Vullo’s 1970s photos were too late for a few famous inspirations. The homes of “The Promenade” had already been taken down for the Shoreline Apartments being built on Niagara Street near Georgia Street.
“The Promenade,” Charles Burchfield. (Charles E. Burchfield Archives)
The houses were captured in film before they were taken down.
(Charles E. Burchfield Archives)
View of the site of “The Promenade” today.
This one was inspired by buildings just a few blocks away.
(Charles E. Burchfield Archives)
“Little Italy in Spring” was painted in 1927-28, and was found outside of Burchfield’s office window at the Birge Wallpaper factory on Niagara and Maryland streets. The West Side neighborhood, looking out towards the lake is mostly torn down, but a recognizable landmark still exists — the 1907 Buffalo Water intake building in the middle of Lake Erie.
“Two Houses Under a Viaduct” stood on Exchange Street under the Hamburg Street bridge.
(Charles E. Burchfield Archives)
Burchfield painted “Old Houses in Winter” on East Eagle Street near Emslie Street.
At least one of the houses was still standing for Vullo.
Today, the intersection looks like no houses in winter.
Burchfield’s “Sulphurous Evening” was inspired by a home at 47 Wadsworth St.
The home was still standing when Vullo was taking photographs in the mid-70s.
Today, 47 Wadsworth is a parking lot.
More than just the buildings, many of Burchfield’s works captured the very feeling of what it might have been like to walk the streets of Buffalo in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s — in an era when Buffalo was a big, grinding and action-packed city.
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.
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.
(Buffalo Stories 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)
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 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. 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 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.”
On April 28, 1999, News Reporter Tom Buckham took a look at a Burchfield watercolor that had come up for auction on a website “known as Ebay.” Fifty-five years earlier, the Albright (not yet -Knox) Art Gallery opened a series of comparisons between Burchfield paintings and photos of the scenes painted. Included in the series is a Wadsworth Street home in Buffalo.
The art center bearing the name of the renowned artist, who lived much of his life in Buffalo, has been a part of the arts renaissance in the city. In 2013, the Burchfield Penny Art Center, at 1300 Elmwood Ave., celebrated five years across the street from the Albright-Knox.
Camera, artist record scene differently
“The different languages spoken by the camera lens and the artist’s brush are illustrated in these two versions of the same scene in Wadsworth Street near Days Park.”