Charles Ephraim Burchfield grew up in the small working class town of Salem, Ohio. From an early age, he was very interested in nature and particularly sensitive to its spiritual qualities. He began painting with watercolors as a child, and continued with the medium for the duration of his career. Following high school graduation Burchfield enrolled in the Cleveland School of Art where Henry G. Keller taught him the basic principles of art and the importance of composition. In 1917, Burchfield began the first of three distinct stylistic periods. This first period can be classified as fanciful and sentimental, and included scenes from his childhood and from nature. Burchfield often referred to 1917 as his "golden year" during which he painted prolifically, producing almost half of his entire oeuvre.
This phase in his career ended when he was drafted into the United States Army in July of 1918. Burchfield was stationed at Camp Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, initially with the field artillery unit, and later with the camouflage painting section. Over the next two years, Burchfield painted images of military life at Camp Jackson, and explored the surrounding areas which inspired several genre scenes. The three Burchfield works in this collection are from this brief period of military service in the South. The images are not as whimsical as many of his earlier works, but they do show the freedom of form that Burchfield applied to his compositions.
In 1921, Burchfield moved to Buffalo, New York and worked as a designer for a prominent wallpaper company. The following year he married and eventually raised five children. Influenced by the urban Buffalo landscape, he focused his paintings on scenes of urban life, rather than on the mysteries of nature. In this second stylistic period, Burchfield explored the “hardness of human lives” and continued to depict socially conscious urban settings over the next two decades. In 1929, Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries in New York City began to represent Burchfield, allowing him to resign from his job as a wallpaper pattern designer and paint full time.
In the 1940s, Burchfield returned to the more fantastical style of his earlier work. Though nature was the subject, Burchfield did not only paint what was visible to the eye. He said, "An artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him." He worked within this vision throughout the rest of his career.
In 1956, the Whitney Museum held a retrospective honoring Burchfield’s career. However, he continued to paint for another decade and received some of his best reviews for this later work. In 1966, Buffalo State College opened the Charles Burchfield Center (now known as the Burchfield Penney Art Center) to promote the arts in Western New York. Charles Burchfield passed away from a heart attack in January 1967.