Passport to Portraiture: Switzerland

Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet standing in  front of paintings, at Swiss Embassy
Paul Morigi, 2016

In the mid-nineteenth century, only two countries called themselves republics: the United States and Switzerland. The fondness between the two countries was even reflected in how they referenced each other—as “sister republics.” So when civil war broke out in the United States in 1861, Switzerland watched with great interest and even participated in the conflict. At the time much of the world was watching to see if the American republic would withstand the conflict between the states. But especially to the Swiss, the American Civil War was the ultimate test of a democracy and citizens’ rights.

On a recent March evening, Martin Dahinden, Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States, welcomed members of the Portrait Gallery’s Diplomatic Cabinet to a reception and conversation at his residence to learn more about the American conflict and the Swiss interest in it.

Two paintings, of Generals William T. Sherman and Robert E. Lee—which, until you know the significance, may come as a surprise in the official Swiss residence—took on more meaning as Dahinden and National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet explained in their introductory remarks. The portraits were created by Swiss painter Frank Buchser in the late 1860s. After the American Civil War, there was such great interest in the achievement of democracy that Swiss leadership looked to commission a mural for the Swiss Federal Palace. Buchser jumped at the chance. An adventurer as well as a painter, he came to the United States to portray some of the key people in the war. There was also great interest in Buchser’s work in the United States: the New York Times reported on his charge to portray the people of the war when he arrived, and he was offered a room in the U.S. Capitol to use as a temporary artist studio.

While Buchser did create sketches for the mural, in the end he did not paint it. His five years in the U.S. had complicated his understanding of the war and its aftermath. The complexity overwhelmed him and made capturing the spirit of the project too large. However, what did result from his journey are the paintings of Sherman and Lee, which he donated to the Swiss government and now hang at the ambassador’s residence.

Buchser spent time on the western plains of the United States with Sherman, and as he was still a general he is depicted in his uniform. Sherman had been on an inspection tour of the Great Plains when Buchser began the work. Buchser’s portrait of Robert E. Lee is equal in size but more complimentary in depiction. The last painting of Lee before his death, it shows the general in civilian dress with his gray Confederate uniform draped over a table to the side.

Later in the evening, National Portrait Gallery Senior Historian David Ward discussed the diplomatic aspects of the war and spotlighted the contributions of Swiss officer Antoine-Henri Jomini. His writings on military strategy were taught at the United States Military Academy just ahead of the Civil War. Ward also rounded out the story of the war with a presentation of people like Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and the captured Confederate spy Rose Greenhow. His presentation closed with twentieth-century author William Faulkner, who helped tell the story of the South on more sympathetic terms, framing the war as “an elegant epitome of a lost cause.”

One famous family of Swiss immigrants to the United States started a bakery that became the prestigious Delmonico’s Restaurant. Founded in the 1820s, the restaurant named several dishes after key players in the Union cause: Sherman, Grant, Seward, and Stanton. As a part of the evening, Joao Marcos Barboza, the chef of the Swiss Residence, transformed nineteenth-century Delmonico’s recipes into modern dishes and also included several dishes from Lee’s family cookbook. Dishes included Sherman Soup, Soft Clams Grant, and Watermelon à la Seward.

The museum’s Diplomatic Cabinet is composed of twenty ambassadors in Washington and uses portraiture to create a bridge of cultural exchange for the embassy and Portrait Gallery friends. It is chaired by Dahinden and his wife, Anita.

Civil War