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Burchfield + Hopper

A white-paper about art by Kevin Korpela (© 2004 observatorydrive.com)

The American painters Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967) both chose towns, cities, and urban themes for some of their work. They also shared many things in common and Hopper even wrote about Burchfield in flattering terms which could be as easily be applied to Hopper himself. And one critic suggested that "Burchfield was Hopper only on a rainy day (Bauer, 13.)"

The similarities between Burchfield and Hopper include:
. People
. Personality
. Reject regionalist label
. Town and city
. What Hopper said about Burchfield


People were important subjects in both artists’ work. It may appear that people are not important in their work because usually there are so few figures represented but maybe only a few people are required to accomplish the artist’s intent. Nancy Heller in The Regionalist – Painters of the American Scene suggested that:

"Burchfield painted pictures which stress the loneliness of small-town life and they often resemble the work of Hopper in the way the family members can be seen seated inside their home, their faces as blank as the windows in the deserted upper story. Like Hopper’s people, the people of Burchfield often seen to be waiting for something that will never arrive (Heller, 86.)" In Burchfield’s paintings where his figures are "...waiting for something that will never arrive (Heller, 86)" may imply a feeling that the time is perpetual. The notion of perpetuity may suggest a never-ending event or a place where events are timeless. And timeless is certainly an emotion that has been noted in much of Hopper’s work. Deborah Lyons and others in Edward Hopper and the American Imagination mentioned that the scenes in Hopper’s work often are without time or set above normal life with an epic quality. Lyons said that: "In Hopper’s paintings we find the seemingly ordinary experience of individual ever elevated to something epic and timeless, and yet his work appears deceptively simple and straightforward. Hopper shares with the American writers who were his contemporaries a commitment to speak a plain language, to use an economy of means (Lyons, 1995: xi.)" One may or may not agree with the claims of timelessness, perpetual waiting, loneliness, or the ordinary made into an epic experience. However, what is known is that both Burchfield and Hopper led rather ordinary lives and were both rather "...simple and straightforward...(Lyons, 1995: xi)" if we borrow a few words from Lyons’ passage noted earlier. Both were simple in terms of practicing generally unpretentious living while working to improve their skills, their minds, and their artistic processes.


Both Burchfield and Hopper were described as rather shy and introspective people whom did not speak much publicly about their work and published only a few written things. Although Hopper was one of the founders of a periodical called Reality that lasted for several years while Burchfield did write frequently but only in a personal journal revealing his thoughts in hand-written notations. They were also both alike in that they were basically artists working alone without direct working relationships with other artists and both taught very little, although it’s thought that Hopper did not teacher at all. Jean Gillies Mueller in The Timeless Space of Edward Hopper said that "Hopper’s vision was essentially solitary. He was not a teacher and did not develop a group of followers (Mueller, 117.)"

In their solitary moments, Burchfield and Hopper read many books and observed the things around them very prolifically, although much different things. Burchfield read books on "John Muir’s account of his thousand-mile walk to the Gulf, he was delighted with Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm...(Bauer, 1956: 49,)" spent much time walking in the woods and watching insects in a pond or tree branches moving in the wind, and was "...interested in the people on the streets – particularly the odd and eccentric (Bauer, 1956: 44.)" While Hopper read French and Russian classics in translation and Modern American realist writers, O’Neill, Wilder, and Tennessee Williams, or spent time attending plays and watching films, particularly French directors like Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless, or Los Angeles film noir and works directed by Alfred Hitchcock (Kranzfelder, 29.)

Burchfield and Hopper have been thought to have had affections for drawing at an early age. This may be an important detail because unlike in the current era of pre-school education and its significance placed on art, drawing, and craft, these talents probably did not play a significant role in their early school curriculum and hence they were not exposed to most art options except through parental influence. And for both artists the parental influence related to art was strong. Burchfield started to paint and draw before the first grade and he "...even remembered ‘doodling’ on his mother’s Sunday tablecloth as a pre-schooler...’Perhaps I was born with a doodle pencil in my hand...in the same manner that a fortunate person is said to be born with a silver spoon in his mouth’ (Burchfield, 1992: Forward.)" Gail Levin in The early drawings of Edward Hopper While Hopper "...began drawing at the age of five and for Christmas at the age of seven he received the blackboard that become his first easel...By the age of ten, Edward was signing and dating his drawings (Levin, 1995: Introduction.)" Both artists started their visually-focused talents at an early age while socially they were both rather shy.

Lloyd Goodrich in Edward Hopper specifically noted Hopper’s personality. Goodrich said that Hopper was "...thoughtful, deliberate, somewhat shy, he was much given to silence, but his few words carried weight (Goodrich, 14+-.)" Stories about Burchfield are rather similar to the stories about Hopper. John Bauer in Charles Burchfield said that he was: "...disparately shy, tortured, by real or imagined social blindness, he never played the role of the bohemian artist and looked although he was not more at home behind his desk at Mullins [a company near his parent’s home where he worked in the cost department for several months at a time throughout his life between other activities] than an easel. But his journals reveal a different man ‘I walk in a maze of dream worlds, oblivious to all beings and things [journal entry from 1917]’ (Bauer, 1956: 21.)" Both artists were also similar in that it really wasn’t until they were both about 40 years old that they became recognized as talented artists. Goodrich suggested that "Like many self-made artists Hopper had been slow in reaching maturity. He was in his early forties before he began to express himself fully in painting (Goodrich, 39.)" While Bauer said about Burchfield: "The second Burchfield [he had three different art styles during his life] was 42 and made a national reputation with big watercolors of industrial scenes, shipping in the harbors, the bridges, the rail yards, the dirty snow clinging to brown-weathered houses. Painted on a landscape with broad realism, though full of romantic moods which he senses in the city (Bauer, 1956: 11.)" Both artists stayed married to their first and only wives, so neither lived a life of broken relationships. Hopper married Jo and Burchfield married Berthera. Despite the probable strong marital binds, Lyons suggested that Hopper’s work in particular was: "...centered on the failed relationships between people or the alienation of people from their environment. We may draw to Hopper’s work by the odd sensation of having seen such a thing many times before - - a mundane view from which suddenly becomes cause for epiphany (Lyons, 1995: xii.)" This may suggest that a good artist does not necessarily need to personally live every emotion or scene represented in a work. It could be argued that what an artist requires to represent varied emotions in their characters or scenes are a few keen talents: a thoughtful attitude, good observation skills, a understanding of the role that any one person has in respect to their environment and other people, and an ability to represent and compose said talents with a paintbrush, pen, pencil, or similar instrument. The talents represented and composed by an artist are often labeled by others as belonging to a certain style or part of suggested movement usually to the artist discontent. The labels persist nonetheless and for Hopper and Burchfield the label Regionalist was noted often but with derision by both artists.


Burchfield and Hopper were practicing art during the early 1900s when artists, critics, gallery owners, and the public started to focus more attention on American and less on European art. Many movements or styles of art were being presented and as with most eras over the millennia the styles were generalized and categorized with a label. Labels can be good and labels can be bad. Labels help viewers recognize patterns and similarities between art to help develop notions about design, composition, technique, content, culture, or help other artists think about their own work in new ways. Labels also fit artists into those same patterns, sometimes unfairly, because of a few over-simplified commonalities, thus defining an artist and their work by probably erroneous criteria. Criteria that the artists themselves usually refuse to accept.

Both Burchfield and Hopper were often labeled as Regionalist but they both dismissed the attachment. The Regionalist or called "American Scene" painting was a growing movement in the 1920s and the 1930s, and often showed Midwestern or Western scenes with landscapes, towns or cities, and farm fields. While the work of Burchfield and Hopper may include these topics, both refused to accept the categorization of their work under those terms or to be noted alongside the traditional artists of this movement, such as Grant Wood, John Stewart Curry, or Thomas Hart Benton. Bauer even suggested that "...neither Hopper nor Burchfield thought of themselves as Regionalist and in fact strongly rejected the more militant doctrines (Bauer, 1956: 12-13.)" Ivo Kranzfelder in Edward Hopper, 1882-1967: Vision of Reality recalled what Hopper’s own opinion was on the Regionalist intent, Hopper said: "The thing that makes me so mad is that ‘American Scene’ business. I never tried to do the American Scene as Benton or Curry and the Midwestern painters did. I think the American Scene painted caricatured America - the French painters did not talk about the ‘French Scene’ or the English painters about the ‘English Scene’...(Kranzfelder, 63.)" "The notion of whether a style, movement, or a particular "Scene" belongs to or fits in a region or a country is probably an important issue to discuss and review. However, Kranzfelder suggests that Hopper "...did not deny the fact of his American origins. He simply looked at it from a biological standpoint and declared that American traits in a painter were innate rather than acquired (Kranzfelder, 63.)" Burchfield generally denied his relation with Regionalist and in a 1935 letter to Frank Rehn of the Rehn Gallery, New York, the gallery representing his work, Burchfield said that: "I noticed of late that my name has not been used so much with the Benton-Wood-Curry idea. If this is due to your efforts, a thousand thanks to you...You would think that nothing original ever came out of America until youngsters in the middle-west started painting. I come out of the middle-west myself, but...I have a wholesome respect for the generation preceding me and...I don’t want to appear to be scornful of or inimical to the so-called eastern artists...There is no question of being eastern, western or whatnot! (Bauer, 1956: 43.)" But Burchfield, like Hopper in an earlier passage, did not deny the importance of being an American or respecting one’s country. Burchfield enjoying listening to music and once when listening to Sibelius’ Finlandia, he wrote, "What a great thing it is for an artist to create something that is the epitome of the spirit of a whole nation...Would that I paint something that would bear the same relation to America (Bauer, 1956: 42.)" The things painted by Burchfield and Hopper did have relations to America, "...Burchfield was painting scenes of Buffalo with as much flavor as Hopper was of New York (Bauer, 1956: 12.)" Generally both artists developed works about urban life: Hopper showed cities, although many rural scenes too, while Burchfield showed small towns.


Burchfield’s middle or second artistic period showed mostly rural scenes with its "...small-town dreariness and solitude (Baigell, 11)" or medium-sized urban areas such as images from Buffalo, New York. Burchfield’s work in his first and third periods included images of nature and natural landscapes, some rather abstract. However, his early and later periods were seldom appreciated as much as the middle section. This author would argue that the early and late styles weren’t as well-composed as images from the middle period. Bauer may agree when he suggested that Burchfield’s: "...deep strain of romantic mysticism was never adequately recognized partly to his reputation as a regionalist and even as a social satirist has tended to obscure his greater body of work in different directions. Also, the fine, moody city-scapes of his middle years deserves without question, a high rank in his total work but their admirers are generally unsympathetic to [his] more romantic nature painting (Bauer, 1956: 14.)" The city of Buffalo was a good source of inspiration for Burchfield. He was working as a designer for a wallpaper manufacturer in Buffalo while painting in the evenings since he was represented by a New York gallery that was expecting frequent new work to show prospective buyers. From his fifth floor office in downtown Buffalo Burchfield said that he: "...looked out over the motley collection of buildings and noted the crude manufactured shapes...I thought it is not what a place is that makes for art – it is what he the artist feels about [it] (Bauer, 1956: 45.)" And what he felt about Buffalo must have been positive for he saw the "...beauty...where others found only ugliness (Bauer, 1956: 44.)" And it was also the Burchfield of the second period who received the most recognition, Bauer continued by saying that: "...perhaps because his painting of industrial Buffalo seemed to play a pioneering role in the regionalist movement which swept American art in the early 1930s (Bauer, 1956: 12.)" Hopper too showed beauty in what many people would say were gritty and ugly industrial landscapes and played a role as a pioneer. Goodrich suggested that "Hopper was one of the first representational painters to realize the pictorial possibilities of the modern city (Goodrich, 68.)" Hopper in his work represented scenes that had not: "...been subjected to such candid scrutiny. We were not yet used to seeing such commonplace, and to some of us ugly material used to art. But Hopper was painting an honest portrait of an American town, with all its native character, its familiar ugliness and beauties. On the whole Hopper’s attitude was affirmative. Hopper preferred American architecture in its unashamed provincial phases, growing out of the character of the people (Goodrich, 36.)" In addition, Goodrich also said that: "Hopper liked the poorer rundown sections, the bare unpainted tenements, the jumble of sheds and privies, and the fish houses, factories, like every realists, Hopper loved characters and these varied structures were as exactly characterized as a portrait painters sitters, and above all, he loved the play of sunlight and shadow on their forms (Goodrich, 36.)" Whether is was industrial scenes or bare houses, both Burchfield and Hopper were hoping to present in their works a few notions about people and their relationship to their world. Burchfield liked houses and thought that houses could be a good venue to express life. He said: "A house is often more moody than nature, they are built by men as dwellings and this strange creature results. In the daytime they have a astonished look; at dusk they are evil, seem to brood over some crime...Each is individual [journal entry from 1916.]’ Bauer continues saying that Burchfield ‘...turned to houses as best vehicle for the expression of contemporary life’ (Bauer, 1956: 34.)" As suggested in an earlier passage, Hopper did help publish a periodic journal called Reality. The opening statement inside each issue and signed by several artists is important because it relates to Burchfield’s notions that painting, particularly as noted in his love of houses, attempts to explain modern living. The opening statement in Reality said that: "We believe texture and accident, like color, design, and all the other elements of painting are only the means to a larger end which is the depiction of man and his world (Kranzfelder, 64.)" Both Burchfield and Hopper thought it was important to use painting as a "...vehicle for the expression of [man and his world or] contemporary life (Bauer, 1956: 34.)"

For Burchfield, though, his middle period showing towns, cities, and urban features may have been only an aberration because, as mentioned in an earlier passage, he returned to the natural landscapes and details in his last stylistic period. Bauer suggested that maybe Burchfield abandoned the town scenes because "He eventually came to feel that the whole realist industrial phase was a digression from his true direction of the romantic interpretation of nature which emerged again in 1943 (Bauer, 1956: 13.)" Kranzfelder also suggested that Hopper looked to nature for describing the role of people and their world. Hopper, however, never showed natural scenes in ways or methods or in the quantity of paintings as that of Burchfield’s first or third stylistic periods. Nature for Hopper was primarily a philosophical construct, as suggested by Kranzfelder, to express relations between people and the things around them because: "...from a vantage point of nature, man observes his world, his manipulations of nature and the effects they have on nature...So the term mimetic art is applicable to Hopper [mimetic is a word used in early writings in art history and often referenced the imitation or copying of natural scenes directly onto canvas]...mimetic does not however mean nearly imitation. Rather, the concept of mimesis denotes dialectical relationship to reality, in which the image is simultaneously a reflection of reality and an integral part of it. Similarly, humans are both parts of nature and raise themselves about it by transforming it (Kranzfelder, 80.)" Also, Burchfield noted in another letter to Frank Rehn at the Rehn Gallery his thoughts about observation in relation to people, particularly himself, and the things around them, saying: "...an artist does like to feel he belongs to the scheme of things, to be ‘necessary’ to the age he lives in," and Burchfield also wrote in his journal that, "I like to think of myself – as an artist – as being in a nondescript swamp, alone, up to my knees in mire, painting the vital beauty I see there in my own way, not caring a damn about tradition or anyone’s opinion (Bauer, 1956: 51.)" Hopper and Burchfield developed different approaches to depict towns, cities, and urban features but as noted in earlier passages they did share similar traits and views. Hopper also wrote a few things about Burchfield that could be directly applied to Hopper’s own work.


In one of Hopper’s few published articles in The Arts he wrote that Burchfield’s paintings had thoughtfulness, concentration, and substance (Goodrich, 38.) Hopper also wrote that Burchfield was true to himself saying that: "...no mood has been so mean as to seem unworthy of interpretation; the look of an asphalt road as it lies in the broiling sun at noon, cars and locomotives lying in Gods forsaken railway yards, the steaming summer rain that can fill us with such hopeless boredom...all the sweltering tawdry life of the American small town and behind all the sad desolation of our suburban landscape. He derives daily stimulus from these, the others flee from or pass indifference (Kranzfelder, 137.)" Kranzfelder also suggested that the words used by Hopper to describe Burchfield could be the same words used to describe Hopper himself because "Hopper like Burchfield found his inspiration in the boredom of the small town and he found it too in the monotony of the great city (Kranzfelder, 137.)" Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper were two American painters from the same era, it is believed that they never met in person, and that shared many things in life and in the subjects they showed in their paintings although the methods and resulting art were each different. They each valued nature or the environment around them and used these surroundings as inspiration to help explain their role, or the role more generally of people, in their world.


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© Kevin Korpela, www.observatorydrive.com™