Described as a Columbus "institution" when he died in 1969, Emerson C. Burkhart was born on a farm in Union Township, Putnam County in 1905. The son of Albert and Nora Burkhart, Emerson graduated from Kalida High School in 1924 and from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1927. After studying art in Provincetown, Massachusetts and in New York City, he settled in Columbus and, in 1937, married Mary Ann Martin, an artists' model who devoted herself to his career. Burkhart was a prolific painter and completed an estimated 3,000 pictures during his 40-year career, including street scenes, rural landscapes, and more than 250 self-portraits, once noting his face was "cheaper than a model's and always there."
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Inspired by the American Scene movement of the first part of the 20th century, Burkhart strove to render the world around him in "painting so real, people feel compelled to touch." He attributed his style, in part, to his roots: "My rural background helped mold my ideas of what I like to paint and how I like to paint them." Abstract styles dominated the American art scene when Burkhart was active, but he dismissed them as "wiggles and curlicues." His work is found in private and public collections around the country, including the Columbus Museum of Art and the Ohio Historical Society. Burkhart also painted murals at Central High School in Columbus and in Stillman Hall at the Ohio State University.