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The Sphinx and the Milky Way

Not on view

The Sphinx and the Milky Way

Artist: Charles Burchfield (American, 1893 - 1967)

Date: 1946
Medium: Opaque and transparent watercolor, chalk, and crayon on wove watercolor paper
Dimensions:
Overall: 52 5/8 x 44 3/4in. (133.4 x 113.7cm)
Framed: 64 1/2 x 57in. (163.8 x 144.8cm)
Signed: Lower left (black paint): 'CEB [monogram] / 1946'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 48.45
Label Text
In The Sphinx and the Milky Way Charles Burchfield sought to capture the multi-sensory mystery of a midsummer’s night—the fragrance of the lush garden’s oversized pansies, dahlias, and hydrangeas, and the hum of buzzing insects. In Burchfield’s interpretation the scene is a fantastical evocation of a large sphinx or hawkmoth partaking of the nectar of a nicotiana flower below a vast star-swept sky. The painting’s elaborate astronomical patterns were inspired by an overnight boat ride to Detroit that Burchfield and his son took. In the middle of the night father and son stole up to the deck and were mesmerized by the Milky Way above, “seeming so close we could almost reach up and touch it. It was a magnificent revelation to me,” Burchfield wrote.

Mary E. Murray
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Text Entries

Charles Burchfield described 1917 as his “golden year,” an inspired period of youthful productivity. For all his brilliant successes, however, the young artist also abandoned numerous paintings in frustration. These unfinished works would later haunt Burchfield; his journal entries from as early as 1931 indicate that he was ruminating on the early compositions, which came to mind through some elusive sensation.[1] Similarly, in 1933 Burchfield wrote to Edward Root, “Much of what I did [in 1917] was chaff, yet the things that clicked I think were the better for it, they have a vividness and spontaneity that the more careful learned things of my recient [sic] years lack.”[2] By the mid-1940s Burchfield returned to his unrealized early paintings that he felt had potential.[3] With the emotional and technical maturity he had accrued in the intervening decades, Burchfield created some of his largest and most ambitious paintings by reworking and expanding his youthful efforts. Among these is The Sphinx and the Milky Way.[4]

 

The Sphinx and the Milky Way was inspired by Burchfield’s nostalgic, multisensory memories of his family’s yard in Salem, Ohio; he sought to capture the mystery of a midsummer’s night, the fragrance of the lush garden’s oversized pansies, dahlias, and hydrangeas, and the hum of buzzing insects. In Burchfield’s interpretation the scene is a fantastical evocation of a very large sphinx or hawkmoth partaking of the nectar of a nicotiana flower below a vast star-swept sky. The painting’s elaborate astronomical patterns were inspired by an overnight boat ride to Detroit that Burchfield and his son took. In the middle of the night father and son stole up to the deck and were mesmerized by the Milky Way above, “seeming so close we could almost reach up and touch it. It was a magnificent revelation to me. Later on when I was really at work on the picture, I climbed a lonely hill about 60 miles south of here, to make studies.”[5]

 

The surface of The Sphinx and the Milky Way is extremely rich. A multisheet composition, Burchfield wedded new paper to old, though he eventually painted out all of the original image. He applied numerous layers of paint, beginning with light-colored transparent washes in light and medium greens for the foliage and yellow and lavender for the flowers. The flowers and moth in the foreground are painted with a relatively wet brush. Over the transparent layers Burchfield selectively painted with opaque color; the red of the flower in the foreground, for example, was built up with several colors and highlights. The opaque paint is largely found in the white stars and for expressive emphasis, as in the dark green and black outlines of the flowers at lower right or the wavy lines in the sky. Burchfield’s paint application in the sky differs from that of the flowers in that he used a much dryer brush with visible, wispy strokes. He continued to work the painting’s surface after he applied the final layers of paint by drawing extensively in crayon. Small black lines emanate from the white stars to create shimmering effects, and extensive passages of foliage in the middle ground are shaded with vertical strokes of crayon. Burchfield also scratched into the crayon to lighten selected sections, such as the central area of shrubbery.[6]

 

Burchfield had intended that The Sphinx and the Milky Way would be an “Adagio” in a “Symphony of Seasons” quartet of pictures. He wrote:  “First movement–Allegro:  ‘Cherry Blossom Snow’ Second Adagio ‘Sphynx [sic] and the Milky Way’ Third–‘Scherzo:  Autumnal Fantasy’ Fourth:  Allegro Vivace–‘The Blizzard.’ However the Adagio did not get finished [in 1944].”[7] Burchfield’s journal from August 1945 reveals his disappointment about his failure to complete this cycle.[8] The following year, Burchfield was nevertheless pleased by his ongoing progress with the painting: “All day on ‘Sphinx & Milky Way’–In the morning it went slow, but by afternoon, ideas began to flow, I succeeded in painting in the moth, the nicotiana, & other minor parts. The work went well.”[9]  At that time he also continued to make studies of the nighttime sky. “A fine sensation,” he noted in his journal, “darkness had increased the height and distances in all directions; the Milky Way was clearly revealed.”[10] When The Sphinx and the Milky Way was finally completed and had begun to circulate on the national annual exhibitions circuit, Burchfield expressed relief when the newly formed Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute acquired the painting for its budding permanent collection. The painting, he confided to his journal, “is one of the most fantastic of the fantasies which I feared might not find purchasers.”[11]



[1] See Townsend, Burchfield’s Journals, 483.

[2] Burchfield to Root, Mar. 13, 1933, microfilm 4547, frame 51, Philadelphia Museum of Art Papers, AAA-SI.

[3] Aug. 19, 1959, transcribed interview with John D. Morse, Charles Burchfield Papers, AAA-SI.

[4] Burchfield pieced sheets of paper to the original early watercolors and later carefully outlined this procedure in microfilm 2787, frames 736-38, Charles Burchfield Papers; reproduced in Extending the Golden Year, 30-31.

[5] Burchfield to Dr. Theodore Brausch, Mar. 14, 1956, Burchfield-Penney Art Center file number 14.22/77.

[6] About his painting technique, Burchfield wrote, in a Feb. 10, 1938, letter to Edward Root, “my use of water-color is certainly not traditional, but I think my intent is based on what men have always sought to express.  And I only am self-conscious about it, the novelty of my use of the medium because it has been told me so often.  In the early days I was not conscious of being different. . . .You would think I would remember when I switched from the pointed sable brush to the ‘bright’ sable oil brushes but I don’t.”  Microfilm 4547, frames 84-85, Philadelphia Museum of Art Papers.  Later, in a 1959 statement and interview, microfilm 2787, frame 720, Burchfield Papers, the artist commented that he typically used a dry painting technique–“the color put on with a brush containing as little water as possible”–and that he painted vertically.  Burchfield, in a 1959 transcribed interview with John D. Morse, 13, Burchfield Papers, explained that he preferred this method over “the traditional method, which is light washes put on more or less wet paper [because] it’s very hard to make a correction on that and not have it show” so that he could sponge away and repaint sections with which he was dissatisfied.

[7] Burchfield to “Dear Friends,” Oct. 20, 1959, Burchfield-Penney Art Center file number 14.62/77.

[8] See Townsend, Burchfield’s Journals, Aug. 13, 1945, 506-07.

[9] See ibid., Aug. 19, 1946, 507.

[10] See ibid., Aug. 22, 1946, in which Burchfield described sketching all day and into the night, at which time he began drawing studies of the night sky, 509.  Other Burchfield constellation imagery includes Orion in December, 1959 (NMAA) and Orion in Winter, 1962 (Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection).

[11] Ibid., Sept. 11, 1948, 573.

 

copyright 2016, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute

Copyright
The Burchfield Penney Art Center, as a representative of the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation, manages the copyright of all works produced by Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967).