Charles Ephraim Burchfield has been called “one of the greatest watercolorists of all time, deserving a place in the tiny band of masters that include Blake, Turner and Winslow Homer." One of America's most original artists, Burchfield is known for his romantic, often fantastic depictions of nature. Burchfield was born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, in 1893. Five years later, following the death of his father, his family moved to Salem, Ohio, where the youth developed a deep relationship with nature. In 1912 Burchfield enrolled in the Cleveland School of Art, where he studied with Henry G. Keller, Frank N. Wilcox, and William J. Eastman. A major influence on his painting was William Sommer, leader of the modernist movement in the Cleveland area who introduced Burchfield to experimental watercolor techniques and color theory. Birchfield’s first solo show was at the Sunwise Turn Bookshop, New York City, 1916. By 1917 Burchfield had developed a personal system of abstractions by which he represented shapes and moods. Georgia Leighton Norton, Director of the Cleveland School of Art at this time, said of Burchfield, “I believe this young artist to be in advance of his times. He is without doubt, a genius and comes to the world to blaze a trail for the future art, of which his works are remarkable examples. His pictures have all the qualities of greatness.”
In 1921, following service in World War I, Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York, where he worked as a designer for the M. H. Birge & Sons Wallpaper Company. Burchfield spent the remainder of his life in Buffalo, and from 1929 on was able to devote himself full-time to painting. In the 1920s, having become absorbed by the streets, harbor, railroad yards, and surrounding countryside of Buffalo, he adopted a more realistic style. Burchfield’s venture into realism lasted for several years. By 1943, however, he had returned to his earlier fantastic and transcendental style. Throughout his career, watercolor was his preferred medium. The mystical relationship with nature that he expressed through his art caused him to be viewed as a visionary. Of his impact on American art, Matthew Baigell wrote: "Few American artists have ever responded with such passion to the landscape or have made it such a compelling repository as well as mirror of their intimate feelings." Burchfield taught at the Art Institute of Buffalo from 1949 to 1952 and at the University of Buffalo from 1950 to 1952. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, American Watercolor Society, and the National Academy of Design. He was made Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts by both Harvard University and Hamilton College. Birchfield’s work has been exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Whitney Museum of American Art; Cleveland Museum of Art; Carnegie Institute; Phillips Memorial Gallery; and the Museum of Modern Art, among others. In 1997, a major retrospective of his work was held at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. Burchfield’s paintings have won numerous awards and his artistic achievement was honored with the creation of the Charles Burchfield Center, established in 1966 at State University College, Buffalo, NY, and renamed the Burchfield-Penny Art Center in 1994. The Burchfield-Penney Art Center now possesses the most comprehensive collection of Burchfield's art in the world. His work is also represented in the collections of major museums and galleries across the United States. Burchfield died on January 11, 1967.