Visitors to the Swiss Residence in Washington, D.C., are quite surprised when they discover the two portraits of General Sherman and General Robert E. Lee hanging next to each other on the same wall. Even more than 150 years after the Civil War, both gentlemen are hardly ever seen together. It is even more surprising to many people to see the paintings in an official Swiss building at all.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Switzerland and the United States were the only republics in the world, the Sister Republics. Their constitutions and political institutions influenced each other. When the Swiss Constitution of 1847/48 was adopted, it followed a brief and not very bloody civil war. The skillful and humane commander was a brilliant general who later became one of the founders of the Red Cross. When the American Civil War began in1861, it was perceived in Switzerland as an ultimate test case for the republic as a form of statehood. Most of the sympathy was with the Union, not least because the Swiss realized that the monarchies surrounding us would have loved to see the United States fall apart.
Some Swiss individuals took part in the American Civil War. One of them was Emil Frey, who later became the first Swiss Minister to the United States. Frey served as a major, was captured in Gettysburg and subsequently spent one year in a Confederate prison. Many years later, Frey became a member of the Swiss government and eventually president of our country.
Once the American Civil War was over, the Swiss government (executive branch) and parliament decided to commission a mural on the American Civil War for the Swiss Parliament. In 1866, the well-known Swiss painter Frank Buchser arrived in the U.S. with a letter of recommendation signed by Swiss President Jakob Dubs that was even published in The New York Times.
Frank Buchser did not want to depict a historic scene, but a timeless representation of the ideals of the republic using key characters from the Civil War. That is very much in the tradition of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European painting.
Buchser pitched his ideas to President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, Ulysses Grant, Secretary of State Seward, Secretary of War Stanton and Secretary of the Treasury McCulloch, and to many others. They were excited about Buchser’s idea and offered him an artist’s studio in the Capitol.
However, the undertaking became increasingly difficult. The more Buchser understood the United States, the Civil War, the Reconstruction years and all the protagonists, the more difficult the envisaged apotheosis became. That is what we can trace from his diaries, his draft compositions and superbly from his painting of Robert E. Lee, who does not look like a ruthless enemy of the republic.
Buchser stayed in the United States for five years. He became a pioneer in painting black people in the South during Reconstruction. Buchser’s paintings have already been exhibited at the Georgia Museum of Art, and I hope we will get a chance to see them in the United States again.
Buchser returned to Switzerland in 1871. He discovered that his fellow citizens’ interest in a painting about the American Civil War had diminished. The early federal state had developed a distinct iconography with heroic battles from old times and the beauty of the Swiss mountains.
Let me conclude by telling you that there is another Swiss memorial to the American Civil War. Delmonico’s’ Restaurant in New York, founded by Italian- speaking Swiss immigrants, created dishes named after the famous characters Buchser wanted to paint. You can taste a few of them afterward.
Our chef has transformed some of them into tapas-style dishes. More than one of them reflect the personality of the individual who gave the dish its name. Delmonico’s did not name any dish after Robert E. Lee. But we have prepared tapas-style dishes from the "Lee Family Cookbook".
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