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Childhood's Garden

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Childhood's Garden

Artist: Charles Burchfield (American, 1893 - 1967)

Date: August 22, 1917
Medium: Opaque and transparent watercolor with graphite on slightly textured cream-colored paper
Overall: 27 x 19in. (68.6 x 48.3cm)
Signed: Signed and dated lower right (graphite): Chas. Burchfield / 1917
Inscribed: Inscribed verso lower right: "Childhood's Garden" / A memory of Childhood / an attempt / to recreate the way a flower garden / looks to a child Inscribed verso lower left: B-267 / "A memory of childhood" Inscribed verso lower left upside down (erased but legible): "Conceived" about July 7, 1917 / Completed August 22, 1917 Inscribed verso upper right: (graphite): Root
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.90
Text Entries

Childhood’s Garden exemplifies Charles Burchfield’s style from 1912 through the early part of 1919. Expressionistic distortions of space, color, and proportion common to these early paintings convey the intensity of remembered emotions. Burchfield wrote that the painter should “paint directly the emotion he feels, translating a given object or scene without detours.”(1) In Childhood’s Garden, Burchfield effects this translation, depicting the remembered emotion of the garden, not its physical realities.

If this is all Burchfield attempted to do in Childhood’s Garden, the painting would be similar to many works of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most artists of that time were motivated by the desire to depict emotional responses to nature, rather than more “objective” representations of scenes. But Childhood’s Garden’s significance rests with Burchfield’s fascination with sound.

As his journal reveals, when Burchfield remembered the past his memories were based more on sound than on vision. In 1915 he wrote of the coming of spring: “The sound of clashing street cars even has a sound of spring in it; at noon I heard a carpenter’s saw—it brought spring.”(2) Similarly, sound triggers the nightmarish image of Burchfield’s childhood garden. The leaping, flame-like shapes are visual equivalents to the noises of insects hidden in the grass. The cottage is obscured by sound and even the small pansies in the foreground grimace as if the weight of these noises crushes them. A 1917 journal entry describes such an oppressive auditory experience, “the pulsating chorus of night insects commences swelling louder and louder until it resembles the heart beat of the interior of a black closet.”(3)

Burchfield shared this synaesthetic proclivity with artists such as Dove, Munch, and Kandinsky. His desire to represent various sensory experiences in visual terms, and his belief that vision could not operate in a vacuum but rather was molded by these other experiences, places Burchfield among the modernists of his time. This contradicts the prevailing image of him as an isolated, idiosyncratic painter.(4)

This modernist temperament is seen in yet another aspect of Childhood’s Garden. In the same year this work was painted, Burchfield created a series of twenty drawings, “Conventions for Abstract Thought.” These abstract images were translations of states of mind such as melancholy and fascination with evil. The window of the cottage in Childhood ’s Garden, with its arched “eyebrow” and darkened lower half, resembles the convention Burchfield developed for dangerous brooding, a mood evoked by the rest of the painting. Burchfield’s belief that an abstract visual image could stand for an emotion was shared by many modernists from Gauguin through Kandinsky.

The sources for Burchfield’s “Conventions” have not been established. Precedents for such translations of feeling to form, however, do exist in the writing of the theosophists, a source of ideas plumbed by modernists such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, and William B. Yeats (whose plays were admired by Burchfield). The theosophist text Thought-Forms (a book readily available in the United States and included in the Cleveland Public Library collection when Burchfield was in school in that city) includes a series of reproductions of images created by specific thoughts.

Childhood’s Garden, therefore, is a work typical of Burchfield’s early style. More importantly, it demonstrates that during the 1912—19 period Burchfield shared concerns and goals with artists and theorists who were squarely within the modernist camp, repudiating interpretations of his work as divorced from mainstream twentieth-century aesthetic motivations.(5)



1. Ernst Watson, Color and Method in Painting (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, Inc., 1942), p. 5. A pencil inscription by the artist on the back of this watercolor reads: “a memory of childhood—an attempt to recreate the way a flower gardens [sic] looks to a child.”

2. Charles Burchfield, March 1915, Charles Burchfield Papers, Burchfield Art Center, State University College at Buffalo, New York.

3. Ibid., 1917. In this journal entry Burchfield described the theme of his 1917 painting, The August North (William C. Janss, Sun Valley, Idaho).

4. This image of Burchfield is seen in John I.H. Baur’s 1956 monograph, Charles Burchfield (New York: Macmillan Co., 1956). It also appears in Charles Burchfield: The Charles Rand Penny Collection, exhibition catalog, with essays by Charles R. Penny, Bruce Chambers, and Joseph S. Czestochowski (Rochester: Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 1978). Czestochowski takes an approach that differs from Bauer and Chambers in that he connects Burchfield with the vision of nineteenth-century American landscapists, a legitimate connection in that he concentrates on the artist’s later watercolors from 1946 until his death in 1967.

5. Ibid.


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).