We would like to thank Nancy Weekly, Burchfield Scholar at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, for her assistance with cataloguing this lot.
On November 17, 1933, Charles Burchfield reflected in his journal, “The other night I lay awake, tortured by a multitude of thoughts; outside the sky was blanketed with soft strangely luminous clouds, in which now and then appeared ragged holes through which glowed the deep indigo sky—black star-studded canvases that moved majestically toward the south…” (as quoted in Charles Burchfield’s Seasons, San Francisco, California, 1994, n.p.) Painted on a summer evening over two decades later, June Night (Luna Moth, Tulip Tree in Bloom by Moonlight) captures a similar vignette of natural beauty hidden within the mysterious, dark blanket of night. Between the jagged edges of the foliage of a flowering tree, an almost otherworldly moth basks in the glow of a half moon. Depicted in Burchfield’s characteristic style of bold, calligraphic patterns and synesthetic evocations, June Night embodies “the romantic side of the real world that [Burchfield tried] to portray” throughout his long career. (as quoted in The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest, New York, 1997, p. 41)
Dated June 27, 1959, June Night was executed during a period of renewed creativity and output for the artist. “The works from this period of Burchfield’s life are immersed in what he perceived as the complicated beauty and spirituality of nature and are often imbued with visionary, apocalyptic, and hallucinatory qualities. In these large, late watercolors, Burchfield was able to execute with grace and beauty many of the painting ideas that he had developed as a young man: the conventionalization of natural forms, the combination of different seasons and times of day into one image, and the visual representation of the senses.” (R. Gober, Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, Los Angeles, California, 2009, p. 137)
Indeed, June Night immerses the viewer in a mystical, alien world that is both frightening in its dark, angular passages as well as spiritually calming under the bright light of its penetrating moon. The powerful mood of the work largely derives from the strategy Burchfield consciously employed of emotionally-laden shapes and patterns to help reinforce particular aspects of his personal impressions of nature. Burchfield scholar Nancy Weekly explains, “From the very beginning, Burchfield’s primary goal had always been to convey what he experienced in nature so that others might appreciate it. He realized that realism was inadequate for that goal, so he conceived a language of symbols to express what seemed intangible.” (“Conventions for Abstract Thoughts,” Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, p. 33) In his later works, such as June Night, these symbolic forms are subtly imbedded into the overall schema of his compositions. For example, in the present work the concentric circles of the moon and repeating V-shaped outlines of the leaves not only add a palpable rhythm to the scene but also convey subconscious emotional triggers. In the 1940s and through the end of his career, “Burchfield made crescent shapes less malevolent, deriving patterns from the moon, moths, and plants, so that an upturned crescent signified something ‘eerie or menacing—at best a pixie mischievousness,’ but a downward crescent could ‘express astonishment, wariness, foreboding, and also sadness.’ He claimed that ‘how and when they are to be used is more or less spontaneous; unplanned, and intruding on their own power.’” (“Conventions for Abstract Thoughts,” p. 33)
With this meaningful use of line and shape, as well as his bold approach to color, Burchfield infused his reflections on nature with a mature executional confidence and unique psychological aura. As the artist reflected in a 1960 letter to his friend and collector Dr. Theodor Brasch, “I find myself being drawn almost inexorably into a dream world. It is not that I am trying to escape real life, but that the realm of fantasy offers the true solution of truly evaluating an experience.” (as quoted in Charles Burchfield: Fifty Years as a Painter, p. 98) His best works, including June Night, inescapably carry the viewer into this dreamy appreciation for the hidden wonders within the American landscape.