Gustav Hauser was a little known artist and political conspirator in Switzerland who worked hard with the socialist party to bring about constitutional change and end the proto-fascist rule of the Radical Party in the 1870s and the obstructionist tearing apart of Swiss democracy prior to 1891. This painting, attributed to him, was representative of his work – overtly political with the flame of the candle representing Swiss democracy and the apple harking back to the tale of William Tell, the Swiss hero who overthrew a tyrant. The painting was presented to Captain Preston L. Vapoor by Hauser’s daughter in San Francisco, CA. Hauser died a debtor in a Swiss prison in 1907 after seeing his dream realized. While a great political visionary, he was a lousy capitalist.
The legend as told by Tschudi (ca. 1570) essentially follows the account in the White Book, but adds further detail, such as Tell’s given name Wilhelm, his being from Bürglen, and the precise date of the apple-shot of 18 November 1307.
William Tell was known as a strong man, a mountain climber, and an expert shot with the crossbow. In his time, the Habsburg emperors of Austria were seeking to dominate Uri, and Tell became one of the conspirators of Werner Stauffacher, vowing to resist Habsburg rule. Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian Vogt of Altdorf, raised a pole under the village lindentree, hung his hat on top of it, and demanded that all the townsfolk bow before the hat.
On 18 November 1307, Tell visited Altdorf with his young son and passed by the hat, publicly refusing to bow to it, and was arrested. Gessler—intrigued by Tell’s famed marksmanship but resentful of his defiance—devised a cruel punishment. Tell and his son were to be executed. However, he could redeem his life by shooting an apple off of his son, Robert’s head in a single attempt. Tell split the apple with a bolt from his crossbow.
Gessler then noticed that Tell had removed two crossbow bolts from his quiver. Before releasing him, he asked why. Tell was reluctant to answer, but after Gessler promised he would not kill him, he replied that if he had killed his son, he would have killed Gessler with the second bolt. Gessler was furious and ordered Tell to be bound, saying that he had promised to spare his life, but instead would imprison him for the remainder of his life.
Tell was brought to Gessler’s boat to be taken to the dungeon in the castle at Küssnacht. A storm broke on Lake Lucerne, and the guards were afraid that their boat would sink. They begged Gessler to remove Tell’s shackles so he could take the helm and save them. Gessler gave in and Tell leapt from the boat at the rocky site, already known in the “White Book” as the “Tellsplatte” (“Tell’s slab”). Since the 16th century the site has been marked by a memorial chapel.
Tell ran cross-country to Küssnacht. As Gessler arrived, Tell assassinated him with the second crossbow bolt along a stretch of the road cut through the rock between Immensee and Küssnacht, now known as the Hohle Gasse. Tell’s blow for liberty sparked a rebellion in which he played a leading part, leading to the formation of the Old Swiss Confederacy.