Dec 10, 2014
Mar 12, 2009

Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night

Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night

December 1917

Charles Burchfield

(American, 1893–1967)

Watercolor and gouache over graphite on wove paper

Support: Two sheets (joined) of cream(2) wove paper, laid down on cardboard

Sheet: 77.2 x 50 cm (30 3/8 x 19 11/16 in.); Secondary Support: 77.5 x 50 cm (30 1/2 x 19 11/16 in.)

Gift of Mrs. Louise M. Dunn in memory of Henry G. Keller 1949.544

Catalogue raisonné: Straus 280; Trovato 401


Did you know?

Salem's Baptist Church, a central feature of Burchfield's composition, has since been destroyed by fire.


Burchfield considered this drawing among the greatest accomplishments of his “golden year.” This period followed a time of self-doubt and uncertainty: after graduating from the Cleveland School of Art, Burchfield enrolled in the National Academy of Design in New York City, but dropped out after one day, returning to Salem to work an office job. He painted inexhaustibly during his breaks and at night, depicting Salem and its environs in an increasingly abstract style.

Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night shows the spire of Salem’s Baptist church rising up between two houses. Burchfield hoped to express his powerful childhood fear of the bell’s ominous ring—which he described as “a dull roar . . . dying slowly & with a growl.” Hearing it on stormy winter nights, he huddled in his bed and calmed himself by thinking of Christmas, a practice suggested by the tree visible through a window in the drawing. Burchfield carefully refined the composition throughout the sketches seen in this gallery.

The drawing’s mood is conveyed through gray tones and the buildings’ hulking forms. Burchfield also created a complex language of symbols entitled “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts,” that recurred throughout his work and represented universal emotions. The hooked forms surrounding the tower stood for “Fear,” for example, and the shapes of the houses’ doors and windows symbolize “Morbidness” and “Evil.” Developed fully in this drawing, these symbols dominated Burchfield’s work during the remaining several years he spent in Ohio.

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