Examining Emerson Burkhart's American Scene Painting “Life of the Spirit is Elevated by Pain”
Below, learn about the painter and his subject
By Valerie Stanos
Born in Kalida, Ohio, Emerson Burkhart received his first art lessons from a local minister who gave him pointers on drawing. In school, Burkhart’s teachers and peers recognized his artistic ability and often asked him to produce playbills, posters and announcements for school events.
Burkhart studied art at the Ohio Wesleyan University, attended the Art Students League in New York and then went to Provincetown and studied painting under Charles Hawthorne. In 1931, he returned to the Midwest and taught at the Columbus School of Art in Ohio. Burkhart would become a notorious figure in Central Ohio. Michael Hall explains: “As Columbus’s rebel in residence, Burkhart never missed an opportunity to claim to be the city’s only true believer in creativity and artistic integrity. As he acted out his self-appointed role, his antics and outbursts made local headlines that, in turn, promoted the sale of his work” (Michael D. Hall, Emerson Burkhart: An Ohio Painter’s Song of Himself, Scala Publishers, Ltd., International School of America: London, 2009, p. 91).
Burkhart died of a stroke when he was only 64. Despite the artist’s feuding with the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts (later the Columbus Museum of Art), the museum held a retrospective of his paintings within two years of his death. In the introduction for the exhibition, Mahonri Sharp Young, director of the museum at the time, called Burkhart “Ohio’s leading painter” and aptly stated the following:
“His best paintings are his worst, certainly his most unpleasant. The powerful pictures of tragic life and dead death are his claim to greatness. They cover ten or fifteen years, the pain-wracked humans with no hope, coffins and the abandoned cars. The vision that produced them came out of his personal life.”
Life of the Spirit Is Elevated by Pain exemplifies the above statement and is one of Burkhart’s major American Scene pictures. The subject of the painting is Oscar Coleman, an African American man from Columbus, Ohio. Burkhart said of Coleman, “I’ll never forget him. He suffered more hardships than anybody” (Columbus Citizen Journal, “Portrait Is Honored After Subject’s Death, But Its Painter Will Always Remember Him,” October 13, 1954). Burkhart explained that Coleman had lost his wife, and later his three children had died in a fire. He survived a stroke that paralyzed one arm. Burkhart painted his subject larger than life, and masterfully captured Coleman’s life experiences, his pain and perseverance. Coleman sits in front of his mailbox, on a tattered chair, his veins clearly delineated in his hands; his paralyzed right arm limp in his lap. The lines on his face appear countless— the signs of a hard life endured.
Burkhart also painted Oscar Coleman’s mother Cora in a work entitled Matriarch II (1946, location unknown) as a companion piece to a painting of the mother of Roman Johnson entitled Matriarch (1944, private collection). Burkhart’s poignant portrait of Roman Johnson is in the Columbus Museum of Art’s collection. Johnson had seen Burkhart painting in his neighborhood one day and asked Burkhart for art instruction. The two became good friends and Johnson went on to be a fine artist.
After the death of Burkhart’s wife, who had been a model for Edward Hopper, and his brother in the same year, Burkhart’s style changed. He painted more freely and his subject matter was less heavy. He became artist-in-residence at the International School of America, traveling around the world; he had rarely left the Midwest before. While this later period may have been enlightening for the artist, Burkhart’s paintings from the 1940s, painted in his immediate surroundings in darker days, remain his best and his most sought-after.
Cover image: Emerson Burkhart, American, 1881-1961. Life of the Spirit is Elevated by Pain (detail), 1943. Oil on canvas. 60 x 40 inches