During the year that I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland during the early 1990s, I visited the Kunstmuseum in Basel. While there, I was drawn to, among other works, a painting by a Swiss artist with whom I’d not previously been familiar: Frank Buchser (1828-1890). I bought a postcard–remember postcards?!–of it in the museum store and added it my collection.
The painting, dated 1878, is called “Mädchen in einer Wiese mit rotem Mohn” (“Little girl in a meadow with red poppies”). I think it’s just beautiful, with its vibrant bursts of red-orange, the multiple shades of green, and the little girl’s golden hair nestling a blue bow or headband. It’s a slice of summer, which felt necessary as winter slogs on (even though it’s been relatively mild).
Here’s the thing, though. Whenever I make a post about a painting, I like to learn more about it, so I can share some interesting elements of the work’s back story. My first stop was the website for the painting’s home, the Kunstmuseum in Basel. Like pretty much every art museum these days, you can view their extensive collection on-line. A search for works by Frank Buchser turned up 82 items: mostly oils on canvas (including portraits of U.S. President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward!), but some watercolors, chalk and pencil drawings as well. No little girl with poppies.
Had the painting perhaps been relocated to another institution? I Googled “Frank Buchser” in combination with other terms–“little girl with poppies”, “painting of poppies”, etc. Nothing. Hmm. I tried the exact title of the painting in German and in English. Again, nothing. I switched to Google Images and searched on the same terms. Nothing. I searched ‘paintings of poppies’ and was rewarded with many attractive works, but not the little girl with a blue headband (Buchser’s daughter?, granddaughter?) surrounded by poppies. I find this truly strange: at a time when you can find an image of pretty much anything and everything with a Google search, this painting does not have an on-line presence.
I even sent an e-mail to the curator of 19th-century art at the Basel museum and asked her about the painting. As of this writing, no word. (For those who might be interested, I’ll be sure to post any updates should I stumble across any).
So it’s a mystery waiting to be solved. As noted, my search for artists’ renderings of poppies was not for naught. It turned up, among others, an old favorite by Monet, and a new favorite by Canadian artist William Blair Bruce.
And then of course there’s this:
Addendum (25 March 2017):
I did, indeed, hear back from a curator at the museum in Basel, and the solution to my ‘mystery’ is rather humdrum; I confess to having hoped that there would be an interesting explanation, along the lines of the painting having been re-attributed to another artist, or perhaps disappearing while on loan to another institution. Here’s what I learned: the work is an oil on canvas, but for some reason was mounted on cardboard. It was included in a show of Frank Buchser’s paintings, which ran in late 1990, ending in mid-January of 1991. At the conclusion of the show, it was removed from the main galleries and put into storage/archives…where it remains to this day. And because the museum’s storage archive is so large (about 300,000 pieces, I was told) it hasn’t even been captured in their on-line database of images. So it hasn’t had any presence whatsoever in the digital world and was thus, as I learned, completely undiscoverable with Google searches. (Now, when you Google ‘Frank Buchser poppies’, this blog post is one of the hits. A morsel of immortality!)
What this information also made me realize was that I didn’t see the painting on display in the gallery, because my visit to Basel was in the spring of 1992, over a year after the Buchser exhibit had closed and the painting moved back to the ignominy of storage. So I was drawn to its reproduction on a postcard in the museum store. I’m grateful that postcards of the image were still on sale long after the exhibit closed, or I would never have encountered the little girl in the field.
Extra bit: In 2014, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI, the moat surrounding the Tower of London was the setting for an ambitious art installation: ceramic poppies were ‘planted’ to honor each and every one of the 888,246 soldiers from Britain or the British colonies who died during the war. Ari Shapiro’s report for NPR is here, and an interesting Smithsonian article about how poppies came to symbolize that conflict is here.