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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Francis Davis Millet

The Window Seat, 1883, Francis Davis Millet, (the artist's wife).                                 
Francis Davis Millet, 1878,
George Willoughby Maynard
Virtually every artist I've encountered in writing about artists I've encountered has at least one major moment, major work, or major element in his or her character which sets them apart from all the other artist I've encountered. The more famous artists have several. Often they compete with one another to the point that it's hard to single out the one most important. With Michelangelo, for instance, I could sight the death of his mother when he was a young child, or his David, his Sistine Ceiling, the Vatican Pieta, The Last Judgment, to name just a few. Every one changed his life. Lesser artists usually have only one or two such events. Frank Lloyd Wright had his Fallingwater. Bartholdi his Lady Liberty, Rodin his Kiss and his Thinker. The American muralist, sculptor, and portrait artist, Francis Davis Millet, while not in the same league with those mentioned above, had his defining moment too. I'll tell you about it in a moment.
The Expansionist: the Well-Traveled Man, 1899, Francis Davis Millet.
Portrait of Mark Twain, 1876,
Francis Davis Millet
Francis Davis Millet was a good painter. Suffice to say he was no John Singer Sargent, no James McNeill Whistler, nor William Merritt Chase. He was no Jean-Francois Millet either (the French Realist with whom he's sometimes confused). But, as his domestic interior The Window Seat (top), depicting his wife would attest, he was academically trained, thoroughly experienced, and quite active in his profession, almost to the point of being hyper-active at times. In 1876, he was commissioned to paint a Portrait of Mark Twain (right). Born in 1846 (or 1848, sources differ), the son of a Massachusetts medical doctor, he joined the army at the age of fourteen or fifteen (again, depending upon what year he was born) as a drummer boy. Later he served as a surgical assistant helping his father treat wounded union soldiers during the Civil War. After the war, in the years that followed, Millet graduated from Harvard with a Masters of Fine Arts. Initially, he worked as a reporter and editor of the Boston Courier, and later The Advertiser covering the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. His first real art experience was as an assistant to John LaFarge in painting murals at Trinity Church in Boston.
Reading the Story of Oenone, ca. 1883, Francis Davis Millet
The Artist's Bedroom in Antwerp,
ca. 1880s, Francis Davis Millet
All his life Millet was rather footloose. He furthered his studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, for two years, winning there both silver and gold medals before hustling off to the Russo-Turkish War as a correspondent for the New York Herald, the London Daily News, and London Graphic. (A reporter who could draw was a valuable combination.) Later, Millet continued his studies in Rome and Venice. Back in the U.S., Millet became a member of the Society of American Artists and the National Academy of Design. He served as a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and as an advisor for the National Gallery of Art. As decorations director for Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition he garnered the dubious distinction of having invented spray paint. With a resume like that, Millet became something of an expert consultant to various subsequent world's fairs, including those in Vienna, Paris, and Tokyo. His Reading the Story of Oenone (above) dates from this period. (For those deficient in Greek mythology, Oenone was the first wife of Paris of Troy, whom he abandoned for Helen).
Francis Davis Millet at work in his studio, ca. 1900.
An Autumn Idyll, 1892,
Francis Davis Millet
I'm not sure precisely when the man found time to paint, but photos like the one above indicate he ran something of a Renaissance type workshop employing several assistants helping him with large scale projects such as a mural commission titled The History of Shipping from the Earliest Recorded Use of Boats until the Present Time, completed around 1907. The photos would suggest it was quite a massive undertaking. Millet's painting style is classically Victorian, loosening somewhat toward Impressionism in his later works. His An Autumn Idyll (left) from 1892, is typical of his 19th-century style. Over the years, besides being a reasonably adequate painter, more importantly, Millet became something of an art expert and capable art administrator. He could also be relied upon as an outstanding journalist and writer. His list of books and publications is almost as long as that of the advisory positions he held. Starting around 1904, Millet became involved with the American Academy in Rome where he served as its Secretary. Early in 1912, Millet was called back to New York on Academy business. He traveled to Cherbourg, France, where, in his life's defining moment, he boarded a ship back to the U.S. Unfortunately, that ship was the RMS Titanic. He was last seen giving his lifejacket to a woman traveling in steerage.

The fountain in Washington, D.C.
near the White House dedicated
to Francis Davis Millet and his good
friend, Archibald W. Butt, both of
whom went down with the Titanic.


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