“It’s cheaper than hiring a model and it’s reliable. It’s always there when I want it.”
Emerson Burkhart on Self Portraits
Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhart opened last week in our 3rd Floor Library Lobby and First Floor Spotlight Gallery. Emerson Burkhart (1905-1969) ruled the Columbus art scene during the 1950s and 1960s with his honest portraits and depictions of life in the city.While Burkhart was praised for his artistic skill, conflicts in his personal and professional life prevented him from receiving national attention. Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhart displays never seen artwork by Burkhart, including the original sketches for the controversial mural Music.
In his lifetime, Burkhart estimated he painted between 200-400 self portraits. It may never be known how many self-portraits Burkhart completed due to his own myth building. According to writer and friend Ben Hayes, “He (Burkhart) said that he was his cheapest and handiest model, and claimed to keep precise count on Burkharts-by-Burkhart. But I have heard him give total as 173, another day as 227.” 
Burkhart was fascinated with documenting his own progression through life. His earliest known self portrait dates back to his childhood on a farm in Kalida. From a young age, Burkhart was encourage to experiment with art from his teachers; one of his first subjects, at the age of 12, was himself. As art historian Michael D. Hall explains in his book about Burkhart, “For an artist concerned with both the truth of nature and the power of imagination, the self does present the most reliable subject. Many self-potrait painters have studied their favorite model since childhood and, as a result, are directly in touch with the subjective emotions of their preferred “sitter.” “
During each period of his life, Burkhart reflected on how he was physically changing. Sometimes he painted a full body length portrait of himself; other times he focused on just one angle of his head. Burkhart enjoyed painting himself so much, he entitled a 1945 self portrait “My Favorite Model”. As technology changed and many artists began to use photos to paint self portraits, Burkhart continued to use his reflection from a mirror, capturing himself as a whole instead of a moment.
Two self portraits of Burkhart are currently on exhibit in Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhart. The first self portrait, painted in 1947, was originally entitled, “Three Wrecks” referring to the two crashed cars and himself. The self portraits plays with the idea of his own self destruction.
The second self portrait, from 1960, shows a softer side of Burkhart. After his wife’s, Mary Ann, death in 1955, Burkhart struggled to make sense of his career and his artistic style. After years of painting death and decay in dark colors, suddenly, his art became bright and lively. In 1956, he was approached by friend Karl Jaeger to become the “artist in residence” for the International School, a program that took young Americans abroad. Burkhart traveled with the International School the rest of his life, visiting places like Japan and Italy. His style continued to lighten as he spent months traveling coastal regions and places where the sun shined brightly. This new take on life is reflected in this self-portrait from 1960. Though he is still truthful about his own aging process, Burkhart uses softer colors and brush strokes to portray himself in a gentler manner than his previous self-portraits.
In Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhart, visitors have the opportunity to create a self portrait of their own. Located in the Spotlight Gallery on the first floor, visitors can use mirrors to try creating a vision of themselves to understand the methods behind this form of art. Follow the fun at #emersonohc !
Have you ever seen one of Burkhart’s self portraits before? What do you think he was trying to express about himself?
Emily Lang, History Curator