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collections > permanent collection > paintings >CHARLES BURCHFIELD
Charles Burchfield
(American, 1893-1967)
Hump Operations, 1936
Watercolor on paper, 17” x 14”
Anonymous gift (88.004)


A sense of lyrical fantasy pervades much of Charles Burchfield’s work, but as the Museum’s Hump Operations shows, the artist was equally comfortable with the more documentary approach typical of 1930s American Scene painting.  Hump Operations was originally commissioned by Fortune magazine to illustrate an article on the rail yards of Altoona and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, then among the busiest rail centers in the United States.  Depicting a scene in Altoona, Burchfield’s 1936 watercolor shows a train being uncoupled and its cars “classified,” or reassigned to different trains and sidings.  A small engine pushes each car up the “hump,” where it is then let go and sent down to the appropriate track through the force of gravity.  In the background are several Altoona landmarks, including the East Altoona Bridge and the Altoona Roundhouse, capable of housing 50 locomotives.


A native of Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, Burchfield studied at the Cleveland School of Art from 1912 to 1916.  He afterwards won a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York, but left after only one day.  Returning to Ohio, the artist painted independently and supported himself through clerical work before his induction into the Army in 1918.  Following World War I, the artist settled in Buffalo, New York, in the vicinity of which he lived for the rest of his life.  His career blossomed during the 1920s, and in 1929, he was able to give up his job in a wallpaper factory in order to pursue painting full time.  In addition to painting, Burchfield taught in his later years and was the recipient of honorary degrees from several colleges and universities.  Today he is regarded, along with Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, as one of the most important of twentieth-century American Realists.