By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011-2012, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2012 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
The last painting from life that was made of Robert E. Lee was done in Lexington, Virginia, where Lee lived the final years of his life. But an interesting bit of Civil War trivia is the current location of this painting. The painting is in Washington, D.C., and it hangs in the residence of the Swiss ambassador to the U.S., where it has been since 2005. Prior to then, the painting was in a museum in Bern, Switzerland. This may seem surprising until the identity of the artist is revealed. The person who did this painting is Swiss painter Frank Buchser, and his life history, as well as the history of this painting, is quite interesting.
Buchser was born on August 15, 1828 in the Solothurn region of Switzerland and died on November 22, 1890 in the same region. In the 62 years that he spent on this earth, Buchser managed to fashion a most energetic life. He has been described as a womanizer and aggressive, but also charming, as evidenced by his ability to ingratiate himself with wealthy and important people everywhere he went. Buchser came to his career almost by accident. At 18 he was apprenticed to a piano builder. However, that career path ended abruptly when Buchser’s master found him in bed with his daughter and attacked Buchser with a wooden mallet. Buchser managed to overpower the enraged father and escaped to Paris where he studied art. He continued his studies in Rome and financed them by working as a member of the papal Swiss Guard. After completing his studies, Buchser traveled through Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East and established himself as one of Switzerland’s most renowned artists. He also cemented his well-deserved reputation as a womanizer, as reflected in one of his diary entries in which he ranked “the pleasures of love” for women of different ethnicities.
Shortly after his return to Switzerland in 1866, Buchser was commissioned to do a grandiose painting of the American Civil War to commemorate, in the words of one of the proponents of the project “the victories of the Union.” In 1847 Switzerland endured its own civil war, the Sonderbundskrieg, after a group of seven predominantly Catholic cantons formed an alliance called the Sonderbund (the “separate alliance”), which opposed centralization of the Swiss government. In response, the predominantly Protestant cantons, as well as two Catholic cantons who aligned with them, organized an army to subdue the separatists, by force if necessary. In typical Swiss fashion, two cantons remained neutral (which Kentucky tried unsuccessfully to emulate in the American Civil War). The nearly bloodless Sonderbundskrieg lasted less than four weeks in November 1847 and resulted in the defeat of the separatist alliance. Hence, the Swiss Civil War was similar to the American Civil War in that the separatists were defeated. But the civil wars in these two countries differed greatly in their length (26 days vs. four years) and number of casualties (fewer than 600 vs. more than 600,000). The Swiss government, mindful that Switzerland had recently come through its own civil war, wanted a Swiss artist to go to the U.S. and do a painting of the American Civil War to hang in the Swiss Parliament. Buchser was able to use his growing reputation as a painter, and his charm, to influence the patrons of the project to select him. This was fortuitous for Buchser, because not long after his return to Switzerland in 1866, he was facing jail for his part in a barroom brawl. Armed with a letter of recommendation from the Swiss government, Buchser traveled to the U.S. to complete his task.
Once there, Buchser did portraits of President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and William Tecumseh Sherman. The Sherman portrait also hangs in the residence of the Swiss ambassador. In this painting Sherman is shown in a heroic pose. In the background is an officer sitting at a table doing some paperwork. The officer has an almost perplexed look on his face as if he wants to say to Sherman, “You look dashing, General, but don’t you have more important things to do than play the conquering hero?” Buchser also did numerous paintings of blacks and their daily lives. In spite of all these paintings, Buchser had not, during his almost three and a half years in America, fulfilled his commission for a painting that commemorated “the victories of the Union.” To do so, Buchser felt he needed a painting of Ulysses Grant. However, Grant rebuffed repeated requests from Buchser as steadfastly as he had rebuffed the Army of Northern Virginia in its attempts to break out of Petersburg. Buchser decided that if he could paint a portrait of Robert E. Lee, this would convince Grant to sit for him.
In September 1869 Buchser journeyed to the Lee family’s residence in Lexington, Virginia with the goal of painting a portrait of Lee. The self-assured artist, who appeared unannounced on Lee’s doorstep to ask Lee to sit for a portrait, had a very distinctive facial feature which proclaimed to everyone that he was a flamboyant person: a waxed moustache curled at the ends which hung in midair and with a wingspan of six inches. It is hard to imagine the staid Lee acquiescing to the flashy Buchser. But not only did Lee agree to sit for Buchser, he took a liking to his Swiss visitor, who lived as a guest in the Lee residence during the three weeks that the portrait was being painted. Had Lee known of Buchser’s many exploits with women, he might not have invited the artist to live in his house, because two of Lee’s three surviving adult daughters, both of whom were unmarried, lived in the Lee residence. However, Buchser suffused that residence with his effervescent charm, kissing the hands of the Lee ladies and entertaining everyone in the evenings by playing the piano and the guitar and singing songs in all six of the languages that he knew.
Lee rejected Buchser’s initial idea for the portrait. Buchser envisioned painting Lee in his uniform, but Lee refused, telling Buchser, “I am a soldier no longer.” Lee did consent to placing his military accouterments on a table behind him, and Lee approved the final product, if only because the portrait made Lee look younger, thinner, and more robust than he actually was at that time. Buchser did this portrait about a year before Lee’s death, and Lee’s health was in decline. During the weeks that Buchser and Lee interacted, Buchser came to admire the aging man who was no longer a soldier. In his diary Buchser wrote, “What a gentle noble soul, how kind and charming the old white-haired warrior is.” Another diary entry reads, “One cannot see and know the great soldier without loving him.” But Buchser’s most telling diary entry complimented all the military leaders of the American Civil War. “The conviction is growing in me that if the American statesmen of the last fifteen years had been half as intelligent and only half as honest and capable as the soldiers, that is the Generals Grant, Lee, Sherman, etc., then the war would never have been started.”
After Buchser finished his portrait of Lee, he wrote to his Swiss patrons that the portrait of Lee, not one of Grant, should be the painting to fulfill his commission. To buttress his assertion, Buchser wrote to his patrons about Lee that “all agree he is the greater character.” Buchser also wrote that Lee “is furthermore the ideal of American democracy. Therefore, of all my American portraits, the one of Lee is the perfect picture to hang in the democratic Swiss parliament.” Somehow Buchser’s Swiss patrons could not see how a portrait of a defeated Confederate general satisfied Buchser’s commission to honor “the victories of the Union,” and they refused to pay him. But Buchser did obtain much during his stay in America. He was able to travel and paint for five years in the U.S., a country with which he became enthralled. Buchser grew so fond of the U.S. that he Americanized his given name from Franz to Frank and kept it that way even after his return to Switzerland. He never fulfilled his commission, and none of his paintings ever hung in the Swiss Parliament. But Buchser can rightly be called Europe’s artistic ambassador to the post-Civil War United States.
Note: Below are images of some of Frank Buchser’s paintings.