An Unknown Visit of an Unknown Painter on the Great Lakes – Fall 1952

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Felix O. Lehner

June 27, (18 ) 69, Auburn, New York, as a guest of former Secretary of State Seward.

Nearly a year has passed since I last remembered this book. What a rich panorama developed before my eyes in this short time!

On July 14, (18) 68, I left New York and went to Cleveland (and) across Lake Erie to Detroit. From there, (I went) on the Meteor, (with) Captain Wilson, to Sault Ste. Marie and up to Houghton and Hancock on the Portage Lake, romanticized by the copper mines there. (I) searched in vain for pure blooded Indian tribes at Keweenaw Bay. In Keweenaw, (I) nearly (was) blown up into the air with old drunken Captain Bundy on his steam tug. (I) went back and spent four to five beautiful days among half breeds in the Entry. This might also be the place to remark that I painted, 600 feet below the surface of the earth, a study of the Sheldon Columbia Mines. Then (I went) back on the steamer Keweenaw to Sault Ste. Marie, probably the most interesting point on Lake Superior, and painted it from the American shore and again from the Canadian shore. Here I built myself a study on a rock in the midst of the rapids with the Swiss White Cross in the Red Field streaming from my castle of art. But the poetry of the Indians is a fact only far from them in the dreams alone.

Frank Buchser

This is the short report of a visit to the Great Lakes in the Journal of the Swiss painter Frank Buchser. It is illustrated by a great collection of sketches, drawings and studies in oil and some large, wonderfully and carefully executed paintings in oil.

Why, in 1868, did a Swiss painter go up the Great Lakes?

Frank Buchser was one of the most remarkable painters of Switzerland in the 19th century. He was born in 1828. Before becoming a painter, he had learned the trade of a piano maker, but later he left Switzerland to study painting in Rome, completing his studies in Belgium, England, France and Spain. His later life is characterized by extensive travel in Italy, France, Spain, England and the Netherlands and towards the end of his life he made trips to southeastern Europe. Especially remarkable are two journeys to Northern Africa. On the first he travelled dressed like a Moslem, and even entered a mosque. On the second, he was official painter of Spain in the war against the Kabyles.

He was too much of an independent spirit to confine himself to a formal school of art. His nonconformance stands somewhere in between romanticism and naturalism, but nearer the latter. Yet his paintings were appreciated by one of the greatest art critics of his time, Jakob Burckhardt. In public life and politics, he was active as one of the chief leaders in the founding of the Society of Swiss Painters, Sculptors and Architects.

Since he was interested in politics and since he had great experience in traveling in foreign countries, he was regarded as the best qualified man for a special mission to the United States. Notable Swiss politicians had opened a subscription for a large painting representing the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War as the Triumph of Justice. It was planned to give the painting to the Swiss Government for its new building at Berne. The first money they got was spent to pay for the painter’s trip to the United States, but soon the subscriptions stopped and the painter was dependent on himself. The portraits of General Banks, President Johnson, General Sherman, Secretary of State Seward[i] and General Lee show the political aspect of the trip. He earned his way mostly by painting portraits[ii].

The third problem to which he devoted himself in America was a study of the Negroes. A fourth group of paintings and drawings shows his interest in the daily life of the American people. A fifth theme was the countryside and nature. There are three regions, Virginia, where he made most of the Negro studies, the Laramie plains and the Great Lakes. It is very probable that the painter undertook the two great expeditions to the Laramie plains and to the Great Lakes not so much for the study of nature itself but for a sixth aim of his work in America, to paint the American Indians. As the newspapers reported, the painter had made suggestions for such a painting to the United States government.

At Laramie the painter made careful sketches at the Indian camps, but obviously they were not a sufficient basis for a large composition. So the painter tried to find more Indians on the Great Lakes. The fact that he was a Catholic may have influenced this decision, the reservation of l’Anse being a Catholic foundation. At least we find in his notebook the name of a missionary, Father Gerard Terhorst. Although the Journal is very brief concerning the trip to the Great Lakes, we are nearly able to follow the painter day by day. The list of the daily expenses in his sketch-book describe the itinerary; the sketches themselves and the accompanying notes show what was of greatest interest to the painter. Moreover, most of the drawings and oil studies are marked with the date and name of the place.


July 14, 1868, the painter left New York by train for Cleveland. On the 15th, he went to Detroit where he stayed over the 16th. The 17th, he went aboard the steamer Meteor; the captain was Thomas Wilson, “an excellent man,” as he adds in his notebook. The destination was Houghton. He crossed Lake St. Clair to the St. Clair River. The ship stopped at several points and the painter went ashore. In the evening, Lake Huron was reached. Here the painter sketched two sailing-boats against the sunset and added in words the colors of sky and water: “Gold – light-colored, the level (of the water) blue, the mixtures green, strangely mild and soft. The horizon looms only below the God of Light himself, the whole play (and brilliancy) of colors is a bright mass of light seen in a mother-of-pearl tone.” During the night and the following day Lake Huron was crossed and the painter sketched the sunset of the 19th on the southern shore of Lake Superior. On July 21st he arrived at Portage and made several sketches of Portage Inlet and Portage Entry. The fact that the painter did not go to Houghton, but went directly to look for Indians, shows clearly that he had undertaken the trip for this special study. Yet he was very much disappointed. He noted:

22 July (18 ) 68. Lake Superior – all the story’s of Indians in these quarters are, when seen close, nothing at all. The full blood, if found, is utterly spoiled by the imitation of the whites; there costumes are more like a testless maskerade of a beggar than an Indian; they can only be used as staff age -in a landskep, therefore let us make off for the Sault de Ste. Mary and use them in the bark canoes -off we are –[iii].

Die Stromschnellen von St.Marie

Although the orthography is not correct, the sense of the words is clear -the painter did not find what he had expected. The Indians were not like the wild and even dangerous Moslems whom he had found in North Africa. So the painter tried an artistic experiment. He went into the copper mines and stayed for two days 600 feet below the surface of the earth, sketching, drawing and even painting. On the 27th, he was again on the Portage Lake and at Portage Village. On July 31st, he was on an excursion to the Canadian shore of Lake Superior. August 1st, on his way back, he sketched the Pictured Rocks from the deck of the steamer, and on August 2nd, he arrived at Council Grove near Sault Ste. Marie. At Sault Ste. Marie, he lived in the Canadian part of the village, probably because a Swiss family was living there. The Ermatingers were executives of the Hudson Bay Company.

In the latter days of August, the painter moved to the Indian village on the lower part of the river. On September 5th, he left Northern Michigan for Detroit. The sketches show the route. From the deck of the Meteor, he sketched Sault Ste. Marie, the entrance from Lake George into Echo Lake, the shores of the lakes, the freighters on Lake George, the forests, log cabins on the shores of Detour Islands, a sailing freighter on Lake Huron, etc. On September 7th, the painter arrived in Detroit and moved into a studio. He stayed in Detroit through the fall, working out the studies which he had made in Upper Michigan.

Yet the big picture of the Indians for which the painter had undertaken the whole trip was never painted. He had not found what he had been expecting when he went there. He did not find the real “wild men.” Yet the careful sketches which he brought home are an interesting historical document about the extinction of the “wild” Indians, their assimilation into the life of the white man, the mixture of the two cultures, and finally about the life of the early white settlers.

Lake Superior

First of all the painter tried to understand the Indian language. Many words are penciled in his notebooks and on the sketches. Then the painter made portraits of the most characteristic heads he had found and he added their names in English and in the Indian language with some remarks about their life. Here we find, for instance, the picture of Spauany Cabo, “the most celebrated builder of canoes on Lake Superior,” or Shib vanoh-habe and his wife, who was said to have eaten his father, several of his wives and a nephew. Buchser added, that the wife whom he portrayed was a “full-blood Indian.” He sketched them inside and outside their houses, log cabins and huts made of bark and in their camps. He lived with them and had watched them in their daily life and work. He ate their food, “fish alone and only fish” as he noted. We see women sewing, hanging up nets, bringing grass out of the dark woods, carrying children, etc. The men are shown hunting and fishing, building canoes and sailing them. He liked to catch them passing through the rapids. The painter carefully observed the importance of the canoe in the daily life of the Indians. He made only one picture of an Indian in his traditional costume. He was sincere enough to realize that that time had gone. He sketched them rather, serving the whites or working in the mines.

A few drawings describe the life of the bearded, sharp faced white settlers, their log cabins, the factory of the Hudson Bay Company and the population of Sault Ste. Marie. The life of the Indians was so poor, insipid and colorless that there was no material for a large painting such as he had made of the Negroes. So he used the Indians only as “staffage,” as the earlier quoted remark says.

The main theme of the large paintings was the countryside, especially the rapids of Sault Ste. Marie. In spite of the variety of drawings and sketches which the painter had made, he concentrated on the Sault. At least six of these paintings can be counted. One of them was sold in Detroit and nobody knows whether it still exists. Most of them show the rapids at sunset. Their colors express a tremendous power. Only a few painters have been able to create such imposing compositions with so few elements, water, waves, forest, stones, sky and light. The Indians are in the paintings, but only as “staffage”; their small figures nearly disappearing, intensify the impression of the immensity of the scene. They stand and sit on the mainland or ride their canoes through the rapids, but the main force of these pictures is color and light on sky and water.

Buchser was not able to sell his masterpieces in Detroit so took them home where they now hang in Switzerland’s museums.

The report in the painter’s Journal, quoted at the beginning, continues concerning Detroit: “In Detroit I lived for a few months and around the end of November, I left for St. Louis . . . I painted a good picture of General Sherman . . .”[iv]

Following an invitation the painter went then to Auburn to paint Secretary of State Seward. Later on he went again to Virginia for his Negro studies and to paint General Lee. In 1871, he left America for Switzerland. It may be added that in Detroit Buchser did one of his finest American portraits, “The Philanthropist,” a German citizen of Detroit. He made many more portraits in Detroit which now are lost. On one occasion he invited the press in, to get publicity. The newspaper­ men were astonished to see: “how in the same time required to take a photograph a portrait was made by the hands of the above mentioned artist having the advantage of portraying inner qualities and individuality.”

Buchser asked $50.00 for such a portrait and it seems that his business was not too bad.

It was the fall of 1868, election time. The painter who was so much interested, in politics watched carefully what was going on. A sketch of a discussion in the Democratic Club shows how he observed the growth of political decision. The final voting made a deep impression on the painter. It inspired him to make one of his finest American drawings, “Citizens at the Polls.” Its motto is “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” the voice of the people, the voice of God.

Sources: Frank Buchser, Mein Leben und Streben in Amerika… Orell Füssli Verlag, Zürich-Leipzig 1942.
Henry Lüdeke, Frank Buchser’s Amerikanische Serdung 1866-1871, Holbein-Verlag, Basel, 1941.
Walter Ueberwasser, Frank Buchser der Maler, Urs Graf Verlag, Basel und Olten, 1940.
Gottfried Wälchi, Frank Buchser, Leben und Werk, Orell Füssli, Zürich-Leipzig, 1941.

[i] The Journal entry quoted at the beginning of this article was made during the time when the painter painted the portrait of Secretary of State Seward in his home at Auburn, New York.

[ii] The painter brought a few examples back home to Switzerland, but most of them are lost. Maybe there are still quite a few of them hanging somewhere in the United States, or lying among rubbish in a lumber-room, or discarded.

[iii] Story’s = stories, there = their, testless = tasteless, maskerade = masquerade, landskep = landscape.

[iv] In between he stayed for a short time in Chicago.

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About the Author: The author of the article was a Swiss student in America on a scholarship at Union Theological Seminary. In his historical studies he came across the journal of Frank Buchser, a Swiss painter of the 19th century who, coming to the United States on a semi- official mission, stayed to paint scenes and portraits of America and Americans. A commentator, H Ludeke, writing on Buchser in ART IN AMERICA (July. 1947, page 187) says ‘”he was a genre painter with a Particulate note of his own, a dear-eyed intelligence, a frequent touch of humor and occasionally of irony, a deep and convincing knowledge of human character and withal gifted with a sense of color values . . . ‘ In 1868 the painter spent the summer on the Great Lakes at Sault Ste. Marie and it is of this part of his American journey that the author writes.

INLAND SEAS and the Great Lakes Historical Society are indebted to Mr. Lehner for a unique story of a talented visitor to our Great Lakes. We are particularly grateful for the author’s appreciative words which inspired him to say: ‘As you see . . . my mastering of the English language is not yet perfect . . . but it seemed to me being in this country on a scholarship it would express my many thanks well, if I could contribute something to its cultural life, so I tried to write this article.• We feel that Mr. Lehner has ably achieved his goal.

This article first appeared in Inland Seas in Fall 1952

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