watercolor on cream wove watercolor paper
40 x 30 inches
The Roland P. Murdock Collection, Wichita Art Museum
Charles Burchfield began working in his third and final style in April of 1943— perhaps in response to his fiftieth birthday, or to the urgency of World War II—as he revived the theme and mood that captivated him in his youth: the intense emotion that he saw, felt, and heard in the natural world. This shift away from the solid, tangible forms of his more straight forwardly representational middle style, used to render urban American industry and architecture, in favor of impassioned evocations of the landscape, allowed Burchfield to explore his highly personal view of the universe.
In Hush Before the Storm, each tree bough, daisy petal and blade of grass seems to vibrate in anticipation of the approaching rain. Branches intersect to form pointed arches reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral, investing the painting with a religious aura. Referring to the painting, Burchfield wrote, "I had in mind doing something dark and mysterious, like a solemn Bach fugue—something to do with the dark interior of a tree on a cloudy day."1 The fugue, a musical form in which different melodies or different parts of the same melody sound simultaneously and imitate one another in controlled but varied patterns, provides an apt metaphor for Burchfield's paint application in Hush Before the Storm. Quick, staccato gestures used to describe leaves and branches are answered by longer, broader brushstrokes in the grass and clouds. Thin, brushy passages of paint in the sky and foliage are complemented by thick, fluid black lines in the tree trunks and verdant leaves. Arched shapes echo each other and repeat in the forms of the flowers, bushes and branches.
According to Burchfield, Hush Before the Storm represents a "mid-afternoon in early July. A summer thunderstorm, whose deep rumblings have been heard in the distance for some time, is about to break. As yet there is no wind or other disturbance; instead, an ominous quiet prevails. Trees and plants, which still have the lushness usually associated with June, stand trembling, as if in fear of the violence to come. Deep mystery lurks in the black interior of the trees, and the feeling of foreboding is emphasized by the startled white daisies in the foreground."2
1 Charles Burchfield, letter to Elizabeth S. Navas, 6 September 1950, registrars files, Wichita Art Museum.