McMaster’s Masterpieces

Portrait of James Buchanan, 1856, William E. McMaster
Portrait of James Buchanan, 1856, by William E. McMaster (Larry Lefever Photography)

Past visitors to Wheatland may remember the remarkable portrait of President Buchanan that has hung above the mantle in our west parlor since 1945. This portrait was painted by the artist William E. McMaster, who spent three weeks in residence at Wheatland in the summer of 1856 creating the painting from life. McMaster made this painting for his own collection of notable figures, a lifelong practice of his. Upon his death, the painting was bequeathed to McMaster’s wife, who sold it in 1892 to Buchanan’s brother Edward. It made its way to our museum in 1945, when Edward’s great-granddaughter gave it to the James Buchanan Foundation.

The McMaster portrait of Buchanan has been an important anchor of our Wheatland tours, and has informed our interpretation of Mr. Buchanan’s life and times, for many decades now. What visitors may not have known as they admired McMaster’s work is that this portrait is not the only one of its kind – McMaster actually painted a rare copy of the portrait while Buchanan was president.

McMaster’s portrait of Buchanan hanging above the mantle in Wheatland’s parlor (Larry Lefever Photography)

Upon Buchanan’s election to the presidency, some of his admirers in New York, members of a rather interesting political group known as the Empire Club, attempted to purchase McMaster’s original. When McMaster refused, they implored him to make a copy for them, which he agreed to do for the princely sum of $1,000. How they “implored” him is anyone’s guess, since the Empire Club had a history of getting what they wanted. The club, under the leadership of sporting man Isaiah Rynders, was closely aligned with the corrupt politicians of Tammany Hall and worked hard (often using tactics such as threats, violence, and intimidation) to influence elections in support of Democratic candidates.

After Buchanan’s election, the Empire Club’s copy was moved to Washington and hung in the rotunda of the Capitol Building. In 1915, it made its way into a very esteemed portrait collection owned by sportsman/philanthropist Alexander Smith Cochran, which was displayed in Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers.

Now, thanks to a generous gift from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation, McMaster’s copy of Buchanan has come to join the original at The only two portraits of Buchanan by McMaster are now together for the first time in history. The original will continue to hang in its rightful place over the mantle at Wheatland, while the copy will be displayed in our galleries. For a limited time, the twin portraits are hung side-by-side in Castagna Gallery for visitors to admire (and compare and contrast) together.

This is an entry from History from the House:

 A 200-year-old house once occupied by an American president has a lot of stories to tell. From an office in Wheatland’s former kitchen space, Museum Educator Stephanie Townrow digs up quirky, fascinating, and sometimes puzzling stories that reveal the hidden histories within President James Buchanan’s Wheatland. She invites readers to explore his home, meet his “little family,” and learn about the tumultuous political climate that surrounded his presidency.

From History From The House