Vanishing Poppies

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.

FullSizeRender

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.

Monet poppies
“Coquelicots”  Oil on canvas.  Claude Monet, 1873.  The woman and child in the foreground are considered likely to be Monet’s wife, Camille, and his son Jean.
William Blair Bruce poppies
“Landscape with Poppies”  Oil on canvas.  William Blair Bruce, 1887.

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.

Buchser catalog
The painting in the catalog assembled for the 1990-91 Frank Buchser exhibit.

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.

Tower of London poppies

11 comments

  • I love that painting also. Poppies are beautiful. My brother Burt and his wife had a huge patch of California poppies in their yard in Colorado. I don’t know if they’ve grown back since their whole yard was flooded in the huge flood a few years back. Their house was totaled and they were flown out in a helicopter, but they were among the lucky ones — they had flood insurance and have since built a whole new house. I’ll have to ask about the poppies!

    I never knew what to do with the postcards I’d acquired or been sent until my sister Kimberley said she used them as bookmarks. They won’t stay as pristine, certainly, but you get to enjoy them. It’s also fun to match the book with a postcard that fits it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t thank you enough for following along here, Melanie! That’s a great idea re: using the postcards as bookmarks. I won’t use the poppy one though, since it seems it could be the last extant copy of that painting! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  • Loved your story. yes, it is quite curious what happened to that wonderful painting. Would love to hear if you get an answer..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Dorothy! I’ll definitely add an update if I stumble across anything. I’m hoping I’ll eventually hear from the curator in Basel. (Did you see the pictures of our visit to Erg Chebbi in my “Golden Hour” post a few days back?)

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  • Fascinating! You’re quite the scholar, trying to hunt down that painting, and yes, that’s quite a mystery! I hope you solve it eventually, or you (and I and other augenblick readers) may lose some sleep. And what an amazing installation — all those ceramic poppies! On today, which is (at least I read so on FB) “National Proofreader’s Day,” I must say that I was happy about your felicitous placing of quotation marks around “planted!” It was also wonderful to behold the two other treatments of poppy fields that you found whilst chasing down the Buchser.

    This post reminds me of my 5-year-old granddaughter’s recent oral summary of The Wizard of Oz, with which Annabelle and her little brother have recently become obsessed. The poppy field scene was not neglected in her narrative.

    Fondly, Kristina

    Liked by 1 person

    • Can I say that I love the fact that your grandchildren have already been introduced to The Wizard of Oz? I suspect many a child’s first film experiences these days are Pixar/Disney or Dreamworks fare (not that there aren’t gems among them). But a classic is a classic, and that includes the Cowardly Lion’s hind legs sticking up in the air while he’s snoozing in the poppy field…!

      FYI: I sent the link to this blog post to the curator at the museum in Basel.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Beautiful and fascinating. It sure is unusual to go under the internet radar these days. If you titled your photo of the postcard, might be interesting to see in the blog stats whether it generates any traffic. Hope the curator engages!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Art in Bloom! I always loved that event. (Just checked the calendar…it’s on for 29 April to 1 May this year. Think I’m gonna have to go!)

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    • I was always more of a Hercule Poirot fan myself…more egghead-y (and I loved Albert Finney in the role in 1974’s Murder On The Orient Express…)

      Liked by 1 person

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