Francis Davis Millet (1846-1912)

Francis Davis Millet (1846-1912)

Born and raised in Southeastern Massachusetts, Francis Davis Millet was only eighteen when he joined the Union Army as a drummer boy during the Civil War. He enrolled at Harvard University following his service and graduated in 1869. Millet’s artistic pursuits began with lithography, a skill he learned from Dominique C. Fabronius, and in 1871 he entered the Royal Academy of Art in Antwerp. After winning a gold medal for painting in his second year, Millet went to Vienna in 1873 and worked for John Francis Adams, Jr., the American representative to the World’s Fair. Like many artists, Millet also traveled to Rome and Venice to paint, and finally returned to Boston in 1875, where he established himself at the Studio Building and assisted John La Farge in painting murals for Trinity Church in Copley Square. In 1876, Millet, along with La Farge and William Morris Hunt, helped in the creation of the Boston Museum School of Art, and upon Millet’s personal recommendation, the German-born Emil Otto Grundmann was appointed Director.  

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Millet had an adventurous streak that took him to the far corners of the world. From 1877 to 1878 he went to the Balkans as a war correspondent and illustrator covering the Russo-Turkish War for the New York Herald, London Daily News, and the London Graphic. He toured through Scandinavia and Germany for Harper’s Magazine in 1882, and in the early 1890s explored the length of the Danube, from Germany into Turkey, later publishing his experiences in From the Black Forest to the Black Sea in 1893. At the outbreak of the Spanish American War, Millet went to the Philippines for Harper’s and the London Times, and in 1908 he traveled to Japan as U.S. envoy to discuss plans for an international exposition.

In 1879, Millet married Massachusetts native Elizabeth “Lily” Merrill in Paris. They immersed themselves in the creative circles of France and England, counting John Singer Sargent, Edwin Austin Abbey, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Mark Twain among their many friends. Lily rarely accompanied Millet during his extensive travels, however, preferring to remain in Broadway, England, where she raised their family.

Millet was a member of the National Academy of Design, the Society of American Artists, the Century Association and the Boston Art Club, where he exhibited from 1878 until 1909. In 1892, he replaced William Pretyman as Director of Decoration for the following year’s World’s Fair in Chicago and called for the white color of the exhibition buildings, thus prompting the show to be called “The White City.’ He was a founder of and served as Secretary for the American Federation of Art, was a trustee for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was Secretary and later appointed Director of the American Academy in Rome. Millet was an expert in mural painting and was commissioned by the New Bedford Free Public Library to paint a mural depicting the fishing history of the town. The project, however, was never started. While traveling from Europe to New York on business for the Academy, Millet boarded the Titanic and died when the ship sank on April 15, 1912. Survivors recounted the artist assisting other passengers into lifeboats and giving up his own lifejacket for another. His body was later recovered and interred at Central Cemetery in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

References: See memorial articles in Art and Progress 3 (July 1912); Francis Davis Millet, “Frank Millet – a Sketch”(ms., Vose Galleries); BAC; BCD; WWAA

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