Photograph by the author. Used with permission of Burchfield Penney Art Center and Buffalo AKG Art Museum
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Sun and Rocks by Charles Burchfield: Total Solar Eclipse and Astral Visions at the Burchfield Penney Art Center Through June 2024

By William Cliff

Even if you were unable to attend the eclipse-themed exhibit “Total Solar Eclipse/Astral Visions” prior to totality in western New York, you still can view this collection of astronomical artwork of Charles Burchfield and mind-boggling astrophotography of Alan Friedman at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. The exhibit remains on display until the end of June. It should not be missed, particularly because you will be able to see one of Burchfield’s most impressive works from the last and greatest phase of his artistic expression. Sun and Rocks 1918, 1944-1950 (1), on loan from the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, is the cornerstone of a show featuring other works that illustrate his skill in portraying the sun, moon, and stars. Indeed, Sun and Rocks captures the flowering of the final expressionistic period of the artist’s life that began in the early 1940s. It is a prototypical work, embodying many of the themes that would dominate his during this period. His seminal biographer John Baur agrees, calling Sun and Rocks “one of Burchfield’s most powerful mature paintings” (2).

Sun and Rocks has evoked a notable range of responses from Burchfield’s admirers and critics. Consistent with the visionary reputation of the artist in his final phase, the Buffalo AKG Art Museum finds that “Sun and Rocks explores the theme of apocalyptic beauty” (3). Nancy Weekly, Burchfield Scholar at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, concludes that “Sun and Rocks is possibly the most bizarre landscape that Charles Burchfield ever painted” (4). During a recent visit to the Burchfield Penney, a fellow viewer simply described it as “disturbing.”

Furthermore, Weekly notes “The painting exemplifies Burchfield’s romanticism as it merged with his later Christian beliefs.” (5). Benjamin Townsend, editor of the definitive collection of Burchfield’s journals, finds that Sun and Rocks epitomizes “the introduction of Christian iconography into his work … in the paintings of this later period he transformed natural phenomena – a crow, a spruce, the sun, bare trees, rocks – into symbols of the annunciation, nativity, crucifixion, and redemption.” (6). Such has been the reaction to Sun and Rocks by his commentators.  Indeed, for several reasons, Sun and Rocks stands prominently among the astonishing variety of works that form the heart of the Burchfield canon.

Reconstructed from a smaller painting entitled “Song of the Peterbird” 1918, Burchfield began expanding the painting in 1944. The final work was completed in 1950 and it embodies many of the central concerns that he would bring to his work until his death in 1967. Burchfield had a fascination with seasonal transitions, and Sun and Rocks portrays one of his favorites – the progression from winter to spring. The setting is early spring. The terrain is almost devoid of greenery, suggesting only hints of emergent plant life. An angular gorge wall presents itself in the foreground and a desolate landscape recedes far into the background. Both are illuminated by a brilliant spring sun set in a deep blue sky. The resulting effect is evocative of Burchfield’s profound longing for mythic lands of the North – another theme that infused his later works.

Yet, when you look carefully at the mud- and sandstones that make up the rock wall – you are not struck by an exotic circumpolar landscape. Instead, you see geology familiar to anyone who has hiked gorges in western New York. In doing so, you can recognize the regionalism that characterized so many of Burchfield’s landscapes. Burchfield was a painter of his own place.  In fact, Sun and Rocks was advanced in part by a series of sketches that Burchfield made at the nearby conglomerate beds of “Rock City” south of Olean. In summing up both the geological influence on paintings such as Sun and Rocks and his own affinity for deep time, Burchfield commented, “I tried to express…the mood of pre-historic times – the ancientness of the outcropping rocks, the earth, the menace of the ‘frowning’ cliffs” (7).

Sun and Rocks also illustrates the romantic association Burchfield found between his music listening, his experiences of the natural world, and the moods, emotions and visions that inspired his compositions. Burchfield noted how the synergism of music, nature and vision shaped the progression of Sun and Rocks.  Writing in 1948, he explained,

“The other day, after having painted all day among the Rocks, I played the Sibelius Fourth Symphony — the impression of the rocks and the music intermingled, each magnifying the other, and presently I had a vivid inner eye picture of a strange fantastic scene in some unknown North land – a vast open canyon, with the sea at one end, sides of the canyon composed of the same sort of prehistoric weathered rocks as in Rock City…” (8)

As Sun and Rocks demonstrates, anyone who wishes to understand the critical forces shaping the epic works of Burchfield’s third phase must recognize the significant role music played in eliciting his creativity.

The spiritual elements seen to infuse much of Burchfield’s later art are also evident in Sun and Rocks. Townsend finds several Easter-themed symbols within the work – including a dove, a worshiping angel, an empty tomb, and an exalted cruciform star – all memorializing One who died, was buried and raised again from the dead (9). Indeed, Weekly remarks that “The cruciform star glorifies Christian hope, hinting at both the star of Bethlehem which signifies the birth of Christ, and the cross of Calvary, which signifies his crucifixion and resurrection” (10). Such are some of the transcendental themes that came to permeate Burchfield’s work following his spiritual awakening in the early 1940s.

Thus, with Sun and Rocks, we see several major themes – seasonal change, the mythic North, primordiality, a synergy between the auditory and visual arts, visionary transcendence, and spiritual symbolism – that recur again and again in Burchfield’s last phase of artistic creation.

For Charles Burchfield, Sun and Rocks was a landmark piece, reflective of his efforts in the mid-40s to build the fantasy and romanticism of his earlier nature paintings into larger, more expressionistic works. It prefigures the “apocalyptic beauty” that would emerge in his latter works.   Yet, in many ways it stands out distinctly in the eyes of those who are accustomed to the Burchfield landscapes from the 1940s to the 60s. It lacks the shimmering skyscapes, lush forestry, vibrant foliage, sun-drenched fields, enchanting flowers, and rich biodiversity so characteristic of his later work. Instead, it presents a stark and earthy scene, dominated by geos and helios – by rocks and sun. It is a “bizarre” landscape as Burchfield landscapes go. Bizarre but epitomizing many of the preoccupations that would dominate his artistic zenith.

Standing in front of Sun and Rocks, you look upward to massive boulders and rock faces.  You gaze up at the dazzling sun. In doing so, you peer with Burchfield at an inhospitable and primordial scene. Yet you are also struck by the warmth of the palette, the inner illumination of the rocks, the brilliance of the azure sky, and by a sun that Burchfield said “will heal the wounds of the earth, and bring forth new life” (11). All signs that, on this early March day, the transition from winter to spring has begun, and with it resurrection, resurgence and the reinstallation of life on the land.  Just the scene to arouse us as we make our own transition to another glorious spring here in western New York.


– William Cliff – 



  2. Baur, J. I. H., & Baur, J. I. (1982). The Inlander: Life and Work of Charles Burchfield, 1893-1967. Newark: University of Delaware Press. p.213.
  4. Weekly, N. Sun and Rocks. Charles E. Burchfield Rotunda June 27, 2009 – Sep 13, 2009 essay.
  5. Weekly, N. (1998) notes from the exhibition: Burchfield in Context, Burchfield-Penney Art Center, November 21, 1998 – January 31, 1999.
  6. Townsend, J. B. (1993). Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place. p. 504
  7. Burchfield, C. E., & Sessions, R. (2010). Charles Burchfield: Fifty Years as a Painter. DC Moore Gallery. p.39.
  8. Townsend, J. B. (1993). Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place. p. 313.
  9. Townsend, J. B. (1993). Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place. p. 504.
  10. Weekly, N. (1998) notes from the exhibition: Burchfield in Context, Burchfield-Penney Art Center, November 21, 1998 – January 31, 1999.
  11. Burchfield, CE. (1954) Sun and Rocks. Albright Art Gallery Notes. 18(2): 24.