Sultry Afternoon was inspired by Burchfield's experiences on a hot, humid day just south of Hamburg, New York. It was painted in his late style, which was a conscious reaction to the realist work that brought him fame. After 1943, Burchfield attempted to revive the sense of wonder he had for the world in his childhood and early works. His late art, built also upon the events and accomplishments of his middle years, grew in breadth and complexity. He sought a visual counterpart to nature in paint, or he created a synthesis of an event based on earlier incidents. As Burchfield's art evolved, his respect for nature and assertion of the importance of personal experience deepened.
The moisture and heat in the work, conveyed primarily by the tropical palette and light saturated sky, are almost palpable. The back lighting makes the atmosphere seem heavy. The leaves of the closest tree are painted in curious radiating patterns that suggest light flickering through the treetop. The painting pulsates with other energy too. The sprouting curves of the foreground tree, echoed in many places in the composition, suggest growth. The patterns in the leaves of that tree also serve as visual shorthand for the shrill calls of birds. Moreover, the rhythmical, flickering strokes hovering above a distant wall of trees and bushes suggest that insects swarm and sing there.
While its subject is close in spirit to early works such as Road and Sky, stylistically Sultry Afternoon is more ambitious. The asymmetrical composition, dominated by ascending curving lines and shapes, is dynamic. Revealed primarily by the tree in the foreground, nature appears monumental. All landscape details are shown with a great sense of weight and in deep space. The palette, unified by grayish greens and browns, offers a full tonal range but is boldly enlivened by unexpectedly vibrant areas of electric green, sharp yellow, and ultramarine blue. Burchfield was in full control of his brushwork, which is marked by great diversity, a kind of personal calligraphy mutating to express different aspects of the subject.
In Sultry Afternoon, Burchfield vividly captured the essence of a time and place, but more importantly, his emotional response to them. His desire to understand nature in all of its guises, even those experienced in discomfort, was a reflection of his deep spirituality.