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