Burchfield's Souvenir

By Liza Kirwin
December 2, 2013

Deputy Director Liza Kirwin explores an illustrated letter—currently on view in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery—both elegiac and hopeful.

Illustrated letter from Charles Burchfield to Louise Burchfield
Charles Ephraim Burchfield letter to Louise Burchfield, 1933. Miscellaneous manuscripts collection, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The Archives is full of surprises. Last year our registrar Susan Cary found an illustrated letter that curiously has no known provenance. It is from painter Charles Burchfield (1893–1967) to his sister Louise written just before Christmas 1933. That holiday season was difficult for the Burchfields. Earlier that year, on June 13, their sister Frances died. Ten days later, their mother passed away.

Burchfield writes “I wish I could comfort you during this time. It was hard before, but now it gets progressively harder as Christmas approaches. I’m sure that Mother and Frances would want us to be happy, if we could so I suppose we ought to try.” He sent a watercolor that he called “a souvenir of my winter bouquet picture,” explaining, “First I made a wood-cut of my studio as a greeting but it looked so much like an early [J. J.] Lankes that I had to abandon it. I think this is more Burchfieldesque.”

By “souvenir,” he meant that he painted it from the same still life in his studio window that he used for his painting Winter Bouquet (Museum of Fine Arts Boston). The red cone of a sumac pod and milkweed seeds descending are perhaps signs that even in death, life goes on.


See our current exhibition Handmade Holiday Cards from the Archives of American Art at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (8th and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C.). Admission is free. The book Handmade Holiday Cards from 20th Century Artists by curator Mary Savig is published by Smithsonian Books.

Liza Kirwin is the Deputy Director of the Archives of American Art.


I am so touched by this story. This watercolor and letter to his sister was just so lovely! I am sure this gave her a glimmer of joy amidst the double tragedies in their lives. This Christmas season is going to be so sad for some families who have lost loved ones recently. My prayers go out to all of them...along with memories of this wonderful painting. Thank you for sharing this online! As an artist, I hope one day I will contribute something so poignant.

Is that parchment paper used for the image shown? The paper looks much more dated than the date suggests.

Lovely painting...art, like music, is one of those mediums that can capture the human spirit like nothing else. Sometimes it is difficult to find the words to express love to family members, but art, even the simplest scribble from a toddler, reminds us that even in trying circumstances, there are worlds of beauty all around us.

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