Working primarily in watercolor, Charles Burchfield created visual poetry, discovering beauty in unexpected places. Burchfield's work often had a haunted quality, as if it existed at the edge of the real world and of experience, but also reveals his reverence for nature and his dedication to recording his impressions of the natural world. Burchfield attempted to be true to nature's underlying laws, even in moments of wildest fantasy, emphasizing the importance of direct personal experience.
Burchfield had three distinct stylistic periods. Examples from each period are in the Collection, but seven of the ten paintings were created before he moved to Buffalo in 1921. Duncan Phillips identified these early works as "Burchfield's personal discovery of an ancient language of descriptive design very different from imitative illusion." A transitional work, Rainy Night, painted in 1918, shows a dull palette but evokes the essence of a wet, dreary evening. Although its shift in subject from nature to man-made structures previews the imagery of Burchfield's next period, its expressionism is characteristic of his early art.
In his middle period (1921-43), Burchfield concentrated on the towns, cities, and industrial areas of Ohio and New York. The paintings from this period brought him fame. Critics identified Burchfield with the American Scene painters, but he insisted that he was not attracted to these subjects because of nationalistic pride. The two examples in the Collection, Cabin in Noon Sunlight, from 1925 and Ohio River Shanty, from 1930 rely more on the actual appearance of the subjects than had the paintings of the early period. In these works, Burchfield emphasized descriptive qualities, such as the buildings' weathered clapboards, and used perspective to portray depth. Mood remained important, but Burchfield held back his own emotions to let those implied by the subjects reveal themselves.
His late paintings, produced after 1943, return to multisensory effects, expressionism, and fantasy, but are executed in a more monumental and solid way. Although Sultry Afternoon, 1944 does not exploit fantasy, the assurance of its execution and suggestion of insect sounds in the distant bushes elicit a strong emotional response.
When and where Duncan Phillips first saw the work of Charles Burchfield is not known, but in 1926 he was advised to go to the Burchfield exhibition at the Montross Gallery in New York, from which he purchased Cabin in Noon Sunlight later that year. In 1932 he called Burchfield an American original who "continues to be inherently dramatic as he tells with inimitable originality about our small town avenues and their houses of ludicrous charm, or of our ramshackle cross-road settlements, unutterable in their mud puddles and general squalor." The next year, he elaborated on Burchfield's early accomplishments: "He was … both daring and deliberate, both whimsical and precise. When he wished he could conjure up the essence of a scene indoors or out...." Phillips's admiration was implicit in his correspondence with the artist that same year: "I have never had the pleasure of meeting you but I feel that I know you through your very expressive art."