A Post-Civil War View of Free Blacks

This painting was created during Reconstruction, before racist imagery would re-emerge as the standard.

Frank Buchser, The Volunteer's Return, 1867. Oil on canvas, 97 x 77 cm.Basel, Kunstmuseum.
Frank Buchser, The Volunteer's Return, 1867. Oil on canvas, 97 x 77 cm.Basel, Kunstmuseum.

(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

In the spring of 1866, just one year after the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War, the young Swiss artist Frank Buchser came to the United States full of idealistic zeal to inspire his nation with a great vision of liberty. He had been engaged by officials of the Swiss republic to gather visual material for a large allegorical painting to be hung in the nation’s Parliament building.

When support for the project faltered at home, Buchser, with the fresh eyes of a foreigner, turned instead to subject matter that proved to be much more relevant and stimulating: the world of the newly liberated African Americans. Over the next five years, he recorded his observations with scores of paintings and hundreds of drawings, as well as a running commentary of his experiences contained in his personal diary.

“The Volunteer’s Return” is mentioned by Buchser in a diary entry dated before mid-March 1867. The location is Washington, D.C., where Buchser often stayed during his long sojourn in the U.S. During 1866 and 1867 he avidly sketched the ragged young men of the city’s streets, usually observed in moments of leisure. When this picture was painted, fewer than four years had passed since slavery had been abolished in the District of Columbia.

There is an undeniable sense of the anecdotal and the picturesque, yet here this effect is subordinated to a theme of signal importance. Two bootblacks listen with rapt attention to a young veteran from the Civil War, identified by one scholar as an artilleryman. His lips parted, he looks upward as though recalling his exploits in the great struggle from a deep reservoir of memory. The soldier’s open, athletic and self-confident pose announces the arrival of a new ideal of liberty to his old neighborhood. His classical stance and the clear, symmetrical grouping of the figures have all the effect of a monument to freedom.

From the extensive record of his experiences left by the artist, a complex, evolving sense of his relationships with African Americans emerges. A rough ink sketch for this work bears the title “Sambo’s Return From War.” Although this may imply a pejorative feeling for his subject, the very fact that Buchser so avidly sought the company of blacks would suggest a genuine sympathy toward them, as well as a willingness to penetrate the racism so endemic in white society.

Buchser clearly nurtured ambitions for his reputation in America, and the picture was exhibited at the prestigious National Academy of Design in New York. An appreciative critic remarked on the artist’s ability to express the “loose-jointed bearing of the lower class of negroes better than any painter that we now have,” and observed more broadly that “the African seems just beginning to assume a prominent place in our art.”

By the time Buchser left the country in 1871, however, the treatment of blacks in the arts was already losing its early promise. After the end of Reconstruction, their representation quite often regressed to a perversely sentimental recall of the less “complicated” days of slavery in the antebellum South. The mood of casual optimism captured in Buchser’s image of the returning hero eventually survived Jim Crow and re-emerged, notably in the work of African Americans of the New Negro generation, who challenged themselves to paint their own story.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.