Charles Burchfield

Freight Cars in March


Not on display

Charles Burchfield 1893–1967
Watercolour on board
Support: 610 × 864 mm
Presented by Samuel Courtauld 1936


Freight Cars in March is a watercolour painting on board by the American artist Charles Burchfield. The composition is dominated by two railroad freight cars that are set against a gloomy sky and occupy the centre of the picture. The clearly delineated cars are depicted in a shallow space while the presence of stark trees in the background suggests some depth. The car in the left of the picture is only party visible while the one next to it is completely in view and appears to be the last car in the train, suggesting that the vehicle is moving across the picture from right to left. This indication of motion is reinforced by the swirling clouds in the sky above the freight cars and the swaying branches of the trees behind and to the right of them. There is a bleak tone to the image, which is rendered in a limited palette consisting of gradations of grey and brown.

This painting was executed by Burchfield in 1933 at the New York Central Railroad yards near his home in Gardenville, New York. The watercolour has been known by the title Railway Trucks but Burchfield preferred the title Freight Cars in March since it included the time of year and, by extension, an indication of the cold, bleak weather of New York in winter (Burchfield in Alley 1981, p.86). Another painting of this subject, Freight Cars under a Bridge (Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo; reproduced in Trovato 1970, p.159), was made by Burchfield in the same year.

Freight Cars in March was first exhibited at the Rehn Galleries, New York, in February 1934. The freight cars that form the central point of focus in this picture are known as coal-hoppers. Burchfield painted them in an attempt to express the tough, unyielding nature of the rough geometric shapes of iron, which he found visually appealing (Burchfield in Alley 1981, p.86). This painting, like others by Burchfield of the period 1929–43, exhibited a degree of austerity and realism that exceeded that of his earlier works, although Burchfield preferred his work to be described using the term ‘romantic realist’ (John I.H. Baur, The Inlander: Life and Work of Charles Burchfield 1893–1967, New York and London 1982, p.152).

Burchfield was born in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, of Scottish-Irish descent. He undertook his art studies in 1912–16 at the Cleveland School of Art under Henry G. Keller, an artist responsible for leading a generation of Ohio watercolour painters that included Paul Travis and Frank N. Wilcox. During this time Burchfield used flat washes of colour to fill outlines, a method he eventually abandoned. Imaginative watercolours of Burchfield’s early abstract period (1915–21) shifted towards a more realist, figurative kind of work following his return from military service in 1918.

Burchfield’s first one-man exhibition was held at the Kevorkian Gallery, New York, in 1920, and he moved to Buffalo, New York, the following year. He claimed ‘It was then I fell under the charms of the realistic American Scene writers of that era, Willa Cather, Zona Gale, and Sinclair Lewis’ (quoted in Trovato 1970, p.9). The composers Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) and Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) also influenced Burchfield. He considered Sibelius to be: ‘the greatest of living composers … I guess his appeal to me comes from the fact that he depicts nature almost exclusively and doesn’t hesitate to give us the shriek of the blizzard, the biting cold (some of his passages actually chill you) and waste desolation.’ (Quoted in Trovato 1970, p.155.) This description could be seen to resonate with the stark landscape and cold, heavy sky of paintings such as Freight Cars in March.

Burchfield began painting full-time in 1929, almost exclusively in watercolour. In 1930 Alfred H. Barr Jr selected paintings for the exhibition Charles Burchfield: Early Watercolors 1916 to 1918 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1936 and 1937 Burchfield was commissioned by Fortune magazine to portray modern industry and labour (see, for instance, End of the Day 1936–8, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; reproduced in Trovato 1970, p.131). These industrial images lent themselves to Burchfield’s technique at the time of producing dense and complex colour using stiff brushes and opaque pigments. (Cynthia Burlingham, ‘A Natural Preference: Burchfield and Watercolor’, in Burlingham and Gober 2009, p.15.)

Further reading
Joseph S. Trovato, Charles Burchfield: Catalogue of Paintings in Public and Private Collections, Utica 1970, p.156, cat. no.811.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, p.86, reproduced p.86.
Cynthia Burlingham and Robert Gober (eds.), Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, exhibition catalogue, Hammer Museum, University of California, Los Angeles 2009.

Beth Williamson
January 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Catalogue entry

Charles Burchfield 1893-1967

N04833 Freight Cars in March 1933

Inscribed 'CEB | 1933' b.l. (the initials in the form of a monogram)
Watercolour on card, 24 x 34 (61 x 86)
Presented by Samuel Courtauld 1936
Prov: Samuel Courtauld, London (purchased from the artist through the Rehn Galleries, New York, 1936)
Exh: Charles Burchfield, Rehn Galleries, New York, February 1934 (11); Burchfield International Exhibition, Charles Burchfield Center, State University College, Buffalo, October 1968-February 1969 (12); The Thirties in America: Themes and Things, American Embassy, London, November 1971 (works not numbered)
Lit: Douglas Cooper, The Courtauld Collection (London 1954), No.161, p.149; Charles Burchfield: Catalogue of Paintings in Public and Private Collections (Utica 1970), No.811, p.156

This watercolour has been known as 'Railway Trucks', but the artist wrote: 'The picture which you call "Railway Trucks" was painted in 1933, and went out under the title "Freight Cars in March". I prefer my title because season is important to me in all my work, and in this example I have tried to give the feeling of March, which in our locality is very cold and bleak.

'It was painted on the spot near my home in Gardenville, New York, in the New York Central Railroad yards. It was cold that day, a few flakes of snow falling, but not cold enough to freeze my water-color (which often happens to me). The type of car is officially known as the coal-hopper. Along with the seasonal feeling, I tried to express the harsh uncompromising quality of the crude geometrical shapes of iron - beautiful in their own way ...

'Another Freight Car picture "Freight Cars under a Bridge", painted just before yours, went to the Detroit Museum of Fine Arts' (letter of 17 May 1953).

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.86, reproduced p.86

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