McKinley sits for a portrait with Swiss artist
Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.
In the fall of 1897, President William McKinley took time out of his busy schedule to have his portrait painted. This idea did not originate with him, but with Vice President Garret Hobart, who had his done in 1896 by young Swiss artist August Benziger.
Benziger was born in 1867 and studied art in Europe. He came to the United States in 1896 and established a portrait painting studio in Manhattan.
Hobart wanted to commission two portraits of McKinley, with the first portrait to be hung at his residence. In the late summer of 1897, the president summoned Benziger to Washington, D.C, to interview him about the sitting.
Benziger was surprised at how informal the interview was and what a kindly, quiet, and fatherly man the president was. McKinley told Benziger he was recognized as one of Switzerland’s outstanding citizens, saying, “Though you have come to Washington for the purpose of painting my portrait. I trust that you will come to love our country so much that you will one day become one of us and make America your home.”
McKinley revealed to Benziger he was reluctant to sit for him because of two previous bad experiences with portraiture. Only agreeing to the process because of his friendship with Hobart, McKinley explained also he was very busy and he had limited free time. The opportunity McKinley gave Benziger came with a stipulation — McKinley was free to withdraw if he was not pleased with what he saw after the second sitting.
Benziger agreed to begin immediately, with an agreement that planned a second work in the early part of 1898. Benziger was given permission to attend all receptions, cabinet meetings and conferences so that he could learn more about what type of man McKinley was.
The East Room was selected as his studio for it had three enormous chandeliers that provided excellent light. Soon it was full of Benziger’s art supplies and easels. A guard was assigned to the room to guard the painting and equipment.
Benziger started on the portrait in late September. McKinley allotted several hours each day for the first portrait sittings. After that, McKinley gave Benziger a few minutes at 8 a.m. to work. McKinley was so comfortable with Benziger he answered correspondence and conducted official business while the artist painted.
One day, after looking at the unfinished portrait, McKinley told his secretary, “Why, I can’t get over it. Mr. Benziger has caught a likeness that is frighteningly accurate. Do call Mrs. McKinley; I wonder what Mrs. McKinley will say.
Ida McKinley came to see, and proclaimed, “Mr. Benziger, you are the first artist to capture the fire burned within the soul of my husband.”
Benziger finished his work at the White House on Oct. 23. Finishing touches would be applied at his New York studio.
Benziger’s completed portrait showed the president standing with his arm on a cabinet, looking upon the viewer with a kind, fatherly gaze.
This was Ida McKinley’s favorite portrait of her husband. It was on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, and was later donated to the Smithsonian Institution by Benziger’s daughter Mariela Benziger. Today it is on exhibit in the Presidential Portrait section of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
Benziger’ second image of McKinley was completed in the early part of 1898, and became his official White House portrait. McKinley was sitting for the portrait when his aides rushed into the room to tell him that the USS Maine had been sunk in Havana.
Benziger made 51 crossings of the Atlantic during his lifetime, painting the rich and famous in the United States and Europe. This included two other U.S. Presidents, European political leaders, several prominent industrialists and three popes. He became a U.S. citizen in 1951 — just as McKinley had predicted. Benziger died in 1955.
Patrick Finan of Cortland is the retired former library director of the McKinley Memorial Library in Niles.