Charles Burchfield spent most of his career in Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and western New York State, far away from the art critics. He forged an original vision as an artist, one that relied on his own imagination and spirituality. Working almost entirely in watercolor, Burchfield drew his subjects from his surroundings-the natural world and the small towns, rural roads, and picturesque, rundown houses that were the fabric of his everyday life. This is an early work, very much inspired by what Burchfield saw in his rural hometown of Salem, Ohio, where he was working as an accountant. Much later, in 1943, Burchfield wrote of his watercolors, "I feel that my best, my most original work is in the field of nature, the change of the seasons, and weather."
Primarily a nature painter, Burchfield celebrated in his art the beauty of field and forest in daylight and moonlight, in calm and storm, and in the passing of the seasons. Man remains a shadowy presence in Burchfield's work but is witnessed in his handiwork, often in decaying farmhouses, industrial buildings, old machinery, abandoned mines, and other objects that reveal the tragic wear and tear of existence. The museum's watercolor Wires Down is an example of this theme.
Wires Down was evidently executed in 1920, Burchfield's last year in Salem, Ohio, before his move to Buffalo. This period marks a transition between the abstract emotionalism of Burchfield's early work, much of which focused on natural forms, and his more realistic work of the 1930s, in which he concentrated chiefly on the man-made landscape. In the late spring of 1919, Richard Laukhuff, owner of a bookstore in Cleveland, gave Burchfield a copy of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and this seems to have encouraged a change in the direction of his art. The chapter "Winter Day in Town" seems to have been particularly influential and speaks quite specifically of the personalities of houses. "The houses have faces," Anderson wrote. "The windows are eyes. Some houses smile at you; others frown." Wires Down, which brings to mind "the time of cold rains, cold winds" of which Anderson had written, belongs to a series of watercolors in which Burchfield dealt with houses in harsh weather, including After the Ice Storm (1920, collection of John Clancy), and Cottages in the Winter Rain (1920, Whitney Museum of American Art).
On July 1, 1946, Burchfield wrote to John O'Connor, assistant director of the Department of Fine Arts, Carnegie Institute, describing this watercolor:
There is no actual scene as depicted in it. It is a concentration of studies, some material from Salem, Ohio, and some from East Liverpool and West Virginia...I guess a little needs to be said about the mood of the picture—early morning after a freezing rain has congealed on everything, bringing down the wires, etc. I have tried to emphasize wetness, half-light, and bleakness.