Medium: Watercolor on paper
Signature: Dated lower right
23.5 in. h. x 35.25 in. w., paper
31.75 in. h. x 43.5 in. w., as framed
During the Spring of 1936, Charles Burchfield painted In Memoriam, a large watercolor of an abandoned pioneer graveyard he discovered during his rambles in the lush countryside east of his home in Gardenville, New York. The artist’s Journal chronicles his enthusiasm for the mood the overgrown cemetery conveyed, the fragrance of the blossoms that overwhelmed him, and the evocations of childhood the site stirred in him. He recorded how he persisted through sudden downpours, his shaking easel, freezing hands, and even the wails of a cow nearby trying to give birth to a stillborn calf—all to bring the painting to completion.
“The evening was cloudy and fairly quiet, perfect for my work, I stayed until complete dark, absorbing the feeling of the place. The lilacs were perfect - half opened, and shading from rich lavender to strong red-purple pink. The ravishing beauty of the sweet - scented cones of blossoms, yearning toward the sky, only emphasized the sad loneliness of the spot. From over on the other side of the hill, came the hopping of toads (a sound that seems belated with the trees as far out as they are.) With such a mood as an old cemetery inspires [go] memories of my boyhood; such as the name of a woman who belonged to the church I attended, Pansy Adams (the very name brings up a vision of old gravestones, tilted in lush grass, myrtle flowers like cold blue-violet stars gleaming.) Or, a song we infants sang in the primary Sunday school, “Praise him, praise him, all ye little children; God is love, God is love.” Old iron fences sinking into deep green grass; star-flowers, ladies dressed in black silk.” [May 18, 1936]
As a poignant evocation of the change of season, In Memoriam expresses an enduring theme of Burchfield’s art. However, in its particular imagery--the pairing of ancient headstones with exhilarating explosions of flowers under a restless sky—it is singular in Burchfield’s oeuvre, and points to the painting’s deeper significance. While he painted this watercolor, Burchfield was struggling profoundly with a complete belief in God, in the wake of the recent passing of his mother and sister. At the center of the painting, on the proud tombstone of Zipporah Hamilton, is an upward pointing hand—a popular Victorian motif that symbolized the hope for heaven. Coupled with the hand, Burchfield painted a ravishing blanket of twinkling myrtle below, the symbol of love that lasts for an eternity.
In Memoriam appeared as a half-page color reproduction in Life magazine’s feature article, “Burchfield at Home,” December 28, 1936.
Written by Marianne Berardi
Frank K.M. Rehn Galleries, NY, 1936-1941
Clarence Prentice, Buffalo, NY
By descent through family to Prentice’s nephew, 1971
Estate of Violet Prentice
The John and Susan Horseman Collection of American Art, St. Louis, MO, 2009
Type of Work: Paintings
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