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Swiss painter kept an eye on US history

Barnard's pictures of Atlanta show the devastation wrought there

When Swiss artist Frank Buchser arrived in the United States in 1866, he found a country still suffering from the effects of a devastating civil war.

Buchser had been commissioned to prepare a monumental painting on the struggle between the North and South for the Swiss government – a work that was ultimately never realised.

During his five years in the US, Buchser travelled around collecting impressions of the Civil War, which had ended in 1865 with a victory for the Yankee north.

The photographs he bought during this time form an important part of the "From Arcadia to Atlanta – Photographs from the Estate of Frank Buchser" exhibition currently on show at Basel's Kunstmuseum.

Buchser had already built up quite a reputation as an artist and traveller when he was asked to go to the US to prepare for the painting.

The Swiss government was recovering from its own civil war, the "Sonderbundkreig" between the cantons. It wanted to mark the end of the US conflict with a work in the parliament building in the capital, Bern.

"Sister republic"

"For Switzerland it was quite shocking to have its own civil war, so it started to look at the US and it was comforting that even big America had endured a war between different states," Gudula Metze, the exhibition's curator, told swissinfo.ch.

"They thought of America as a sister republic, so there was a big interest in events there."

Whereas the Swiss war had been between Catholics and Protestants, the US conflict was fought over the issues of slavery and states' rights.

The pro-slavery southern states, the Confederates, had seceded from the Federal Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln as president on an anti-slavery platform. After their defeat, the union was preserved and slavery was abolished.

In Switzerland the victory over the Catholic Sonderbund in 1847 marked a turning point. A year later the Swiss constitution transformed the country into a federal state.

War photo reporting

After he arrived in the US, Buchser looked for some material to help form an accurate picture of the civil war. A large selection was already available. Photography, a relatively new art, had been making leaps and bounds. Photographers were now able to go out into the field, giving war reporting a new level of public exposure.

Nevertheless, as the photographs attest, action shots were still far off due to the long exposure times needed. Thus a picture showing canon loading is obviously staged.

Buchser was by all accounts quite a character. "He was a womanizer and sometimes aggressive, but he must have been charming as it was easy for him to get in touch with rich and important people wherever he went," Metze said.

After landing in New York, he headed to Washington, D.C., where he was accepted by the political elite, including the presidential circles.

The idea was to paint "the saviours of the Union" picture, featuring major personalities in the war, including Lincoln and the generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. The sketch for the group painting can be seen in the exhibition.

Sherman and Lee

However, having met Grant and Sherman and the defeated Confederate general Robert E. Lee, Buchser began to change his mind. He decided instead to show the end of the war, symbolised by a meeting between Grant and Lee.

His separate portraits of Sherman and Lee, painted during this time, both now hang in the Swiss embassy in Washington.

The painting of Lee, the last completed during the general's life, is considered of particular interest because he is not wearing his Confederate uniform – a sign that he wanted to leave the war in the past. Sherman is shown in a hero pose.

Ultimately, however, the Bern painting was not carried out, partly because of financial reasons and party because of the artist.

During his travels Buchser had witnessed the terrible cost of the five-year war, which had claimed the lives of around 620,000 people.

Devastated South

A series of three photos taken of the rebel stronghold in Atlanta, by acclaimed Civil War photographer George Barnard, reveal the devastation wreaked in the South.

"They not only show Sherman's victory there, but also how much the people suffered, the landscape suffered," Metze said.

"They tell us how Buchser must have come to see that the situation was not all black and white, and not all Union and Confederation, and how he saw the victory in connection with a lot of suffering for everybody."

He also came into contact with the "forgotten" people, the African Americans, many of whom volunteered in the Civil War, and the Native Americans. Here Buchser did not collect photos, preferring to get in touch with people directly.

One of his paintings, on display at the exhibition, shows a returning African American volunteer recounting his experiences to his rapt friends.

Buchser's legacy

Buchser collected around 30 photos from the US. These and more than 150 others, including scenes of Italy and Britain, entered the collection of the museum's Department of Prints and Drawings in 1896 and for a long time languished there.

Metze hopes that the photos, on display for the first time, can now be seen as important documents in their own right – as a historical witness to the times and to how Buchser worked.

"He was no collector of photographs, he was simply interested in photographs in how they could help him with his paintings," Metze said.

"They are important for his time in the US and to see how he tried to figure out how to accomplish this never-finished painting for the government building in Bern."

Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Basel, swissinfo.ch

The exhibition

From Arcadia to Atlanta – Photographs from the Estate of Frank Buchser (1828-1890) runs at the Basel Kunstmuseum from June 6 – September 13, 2009.

Around 200 photographic prints used by Buchser entered the collection of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Kunstmuseum in 1896. At the time, they were considered a documentary addendum to Buchser's estate.

In fact, as the exhibition shows, there are several masterpieces among them. Also on view are rare photos of the region around Rome, Italy, as well as pictures of Scarborough, Britain, a seaside town where Buchser drew much inspiration. Sketches and paintings are also on display.

Frank Buchser

Frank – originally Franz – Buchser was born near Solothurn in 1828,the son of a farmer and landlord. He originally trained to be a piano and organ maker but decided in 1847 to leave for Rome. There he worked as a Swiss Guard to fund his art studies. He then studied in Paris and Antwerp.

In 1852-1853 he travelled through Spain and had his first success as a painter. Later journeys took him to England, Morocco and the United States. He spent his last years in Switzerland, where the Swiss painter Cuno Amiet was one of his apprentices.

He was a freemason and interested in politics.

The Solothurn Kunstmuseum possesses around 60 of Buchser's works, considered to be the most important grouping of his oeuvre. He is estimated to have painted around 1,000 works with oil during his lifetime.


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