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The Insect Chorus

Not on view

The Insect Chorus

Artist: Charles Burchfield (American, 1893 - 1967)

Date: September 5, 1917
Medium: Opaque and transparent watercolor with ink, graphite, and crayon on off-white paper
Overall: 20 x 15 7/8in. (50.8 x 40.3cm)
Signed: Signed and dated lower right (graphite): Chas Burchfield / 1917
Inscribed: Inscribed verso upper center (red crayon): The Insect Chorus / September 5, 1917 Inscribed verso lower left (graphite or black crayon): B-274 Inscribed verso right center: Chas-Burchfield / 1917; verso upper left (graphite): 1 [encircled]; upper center (graphite): M.M. Photo; upper right (graphite): Root; center (red pencil, in artist's hand): The Insect Chorus / September 5, 1917; lower right center (graphite, in artist's hand): "The Insect Chorus" / It is late Sunday afternoon in August, / the child stands alone in the garden / listening to the metallic sounds of / insects; they are all his world, / so to his mind all things become / saturated with their presence-crickets / lurk in depth of the grass, the shadows / of the trees conceal fantastic creatures, / and the boy looks with fear at the / black interior of the arbor, not knowing / what terrible thing might be there.; lower left (graphite): B-274; lower right (graphite): Black
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.99
Label Text
During Charles Burchfield’s prolific “golden year” of 1917 he painted expressive compositions, including The Insect Chorus, in which he sought to capture sensations about natural phenomena and nostalgic feelings from childhood about such phenomena. After this body of youthful work became widely known years later, Burchfield wrote to collectors Edward and Grace Root, “In 1917 I made a collection of such ‘memories’ (childhood moods I called them) filling a note-book with them. They formed the starting point of many of the sketches of that period. . . . It is refreshing to me to find another man remembering and cherishing such childish impressions, and considering them valuable. Most adults spurn the things of their childhood and consider the yearning for such things in a grown man as a weakness.” (1) Several years after he wrote these comments, Burchfield’s dealer, Frank Rehn, organized a show of the artist’s paintings from 1917-18. The checklist included a statement by Burchfield about his ambitions as a young artist. His goals included “pure decoration” and “pure painting” as well as the more metaphysical aims of recreating and recording “certain moods and impressions of my childhood, which occupied my mind chiefly thru 1917 and early 1918. In addition I made experiments in what was then a ‘forbidden’ field; the joining of sight and hearing.” (2)

In August and September 1917 Burchfield painted several compositions that are, like The Insect Chorus, visualizations of his late-summer wanderings through Salem, Ohio, landscapes. (3) The Insect Chorus is a mysterious, backyard world in which the overgrown shrubbery overwhelms the architecture. The bushes open somewhat menacingly with a looming dark entrance that could at once delight and frighten a small boy. In this painting Burchfield incorporated several abstract motifs to convey nostalgic moods of childhood. (4) Here he developed variations on an angled line that simultaneously stand for hopping bugs, tree leaves, and tall grasses; it is difficult in some areas of the composition, in fact, to discern flora from fauna. Similarly, Burchfield used another system of lines to describe both the pitched roof in the center background as well as the lush plant forms (although with the latter the lines become freely arabesque). In The Insect Chorus the forms are all of one piece in a total compositional and emotional structure, just as his journal notations weave together a complete multi-sensory experience: “noon—z–ing of katydids, high shrill pin-point cricket chorus; darting of yellow & white butterflies—dark blue grey north sky, whitish sepulchral sunlight over things, dry leaves rattle in wind, a cicada; dying sun-flowers; afternoon sunlight turns whiter, color like moonlight, the katydids subside, leaving the pinpoint cricket song; searing grass; sad sunlight on windows—.” (5) The Insect Chorus conjures an elegiac late summer afternoon during which harmonious insects create an aural and visual vibration of vitality that resonates with the shimmering heat—the “joining of sight and hearing,” as the artist described it—but that also signals the imminent autumn.

In painting The Insect Chorus Burchfield combined several media. He drew extensive portions of the composition in graphite, crayon, and ink and blocked out the principal components of the image with graphite. He washed over the graphite with passages of gray, light green, and yellow transparent watercolor (which have faded from extensive exposure in the past seventy years). Burchfield then painted with opaque black to define major forms and highlighted these with opaque white paint and black crayon. He also used a fine line of ink to render jumping grasshoppers and finally drew abstract forms with red crayon in the lower left to add a bit of complementary spice to that section. This painting is a remarkable leap forward in its use of materials from Poplar Walk of a year earlier and demonstrates Burchfield’s free and unconventional techniques which defied expectations for watercolor.

1 Burchfield to Edward and Grace Root, July 18, 1931, microfilm 4547, frame 34, Philadelphia Museum of Art Papers, AAA-SI. Burchfield was referring specifically to his painting Childhood Garden (ex. coll. Edward Root, now MWPI 57.90), but the same sentiments apply to The Insect Chorus.

2 “Foreword,” Early Watercolors of Charles Burchfield: 1917-1918 Period (New York: Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries, 1939), unpaginated.

3 A comparison between The Insect Chorus and other Aug.-Sept. 1917 paintings of the same subject reveals similar motifs and use of media. See, for example, Insects at Twilight (MoMA, Trovato 383), Cricket Chorus in the Arbor (priv. coll., Trovato 378), or Insect Fantasy (priv. coll., Trovato 384). See also J. Benjamin Townsend, ed., Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place (Albany, N.Y.: The State University of New York Press, 1993), 20, n. 27.

Burchfield recorded similar experiences in his journals over the years. See his Aug. 6, 1913 journal entry, Townsend, Burchfield’s Journals, 224: “The crickets[‘] pulsing chorus had commenced. As I went along the stubbled hayfields . . . I heard some grasshoppers singing. I noticed two distinct kinds–one that gave a continuous song–a steady monotonous ztitzen sound; the other a more varied song–‘Tzt Tzt Tzt Tzt–Zeeeeeeeeee’ at intervals. There was a whole fiendish chorus of them in an uncut hayfield near the orchard.” See also Sept. 3, 1919 (ibid., 20): “The sulphurous twilight of August pours down from above, & turns all things a ghostly yellow,–Then vaguely the cricket chorus commences to make itself felt–steadily it grows, almost imperceptabley [sic] till suddenly it is become the full throbbing pulse-like chorus of the late summer night, the dense black shadows form back of the house–The last light vanishes leaving the town to blackness & the crickets.”

As a boy, Burchfield collected insects, a hobby about which he wrote an extensive journal entry in 1911; see Townsend, 197-216.

4 See Matthew Baigell, Charles Burchfield (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1976), 26 and 73-76.

5 Townsend, Burchfield’s Journals, 451.

Mary E. Murray
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).