The President’s Park and the Titanic: paintings of Francis Davis Millet

Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912), Between Two Fires (c 1892), oil on canvas, 74 x 91.4 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Not far from the White House, in the President’s Park, Washington D.C., is a large fountain intended to provide drinking water for the horses used by the patrols of the park police. The Butts-Millet Memorial Fountain commemorates two close associates of President Taft: Archibald Butt, his military aide, and Francis Davis Millet, a journalist and painter, who lived together, and died together in the sinking of the RMS Titanic on 15 April 1912.

Tim Evanson (dates not known), Looking Northeast at the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain, Washington, D.C (2012), photograph, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Tim Evanson’s photo, taken in 2012, shows the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain near The Ellipse in the southern part of the President’s Park.

This article looks briefly at Millet’s paintings, and tomorrow’s looks at those of Colin Campbell Cooper, who was a passenger on the RMS Carpathia, which arrived on scene two hours after the Titanic sank, and rescued over seven hundred survivors.

Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912) had been a central figure in American fine arts. A trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a member of the advisory committee for the National Gallery of Art, a co-founder of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, deeply involved with the American Academy in Rome, and a founding member of the US Commission of the Fine Arts, there seemed little in the East Coast art establishment that he wasn’t involved with.

Today he has been forgotten as a painter. Working in mid-century Salon style, he was detached from the dramatic changes taking place in American art in the late nineteenth century. He did, though, paint some wonderful works, including many scenes from classical history and mythology. As an eminent classicist of the day, his motifs were sometimes unusual, and his style comparable to that of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, working in England.

Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912), Portrait of Charles Francis Adams, jr. (1876), media and dimensions not known, Old House, Adams National Historical Park, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Millet’s Portrait of Charles Francis Adams, jr. from 1876 shows the grandson of US President John Quincy Adams, who was president of the Union Pacific Railroad between 1884-1890. In the same year that he painted this, together with John LaFarge, Millet painted murals at Trinity Church in Boston. He then trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. He was a war correspondent during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, earning himself decorations from the Russians and Romanians.

Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912), Reading the Story of Oenone (c 1883), oil on canvas, 76.2 × 147 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI. Wikimedia Commons.

Millet’s Reading the Story of Oenone (c 1883) seems at first sight to have followed the drift into the Aesthetic Movement which was popular in Europe at the time. Four beautiful women in classical robes appear to be engaged in a little dolce far niente, doing sweet nothing. That is hardly an explanation, though: three of them are certainly involved in the reading out loud of an obscure story.

Œnone or Oinone, to be pedantic over her name, was the first wife of Paris (or Alexander), son of King Priam of Troy, who also remains famous for the Judgement of Paris, and his central role in bringing about the Trojan War, and its consequences. She was abandoned with her young son when Paris seduced or abducted Helen and took her back to Troy.

Late in the Trojan War, Paris was severely wounded by a poisoned arrow from Philoctetes. Helen then left the city and travelled to the slopes of Mount Ida, where she found Oenone and pleaded that she returned with her to heal Paris of his wounds. Oenone refused at first, but was overcome with remorse and changed her mind. By the time she had returned to Paris, he was already dead; in her grief, Oenone threw herself on his funeral pyre.

Millet would have been familiar with Ovid’s account of her story in his Heroides. Why then should he paint not Oenone, but a group of women responding to a reading of her story? The answer lies in Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote two poems about Oenone. The first in 1829 was slated by the critics, and he revised it. However, Millet’s painting dates from about 1883, well before Tennyson wrote his second version in 1892, the year of his death.

In addition to portraits, including that of his friend Mark Twain, Millet painted genre scenes.

Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912), A Cosey Corner (1884), oil on canvas, 92.1 x 61.6 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

A Cosey Corner from 1884 is typical of his earlier domestic views, showing a young woman reading by the window of an old country house with a fire burning in an open hearth.

Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912), The Granddaughter (1885), oil on canvas, 79.3 x 123.1 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

The Granddaughter (1885) is another young woman, this time apparently unwell and resting on a couch in an old country house. Just entering the room is her grandfather, bringing a basket of fruit to aid her recovery.

Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912), Semana Santa, Seville (1888), media not known, 17.8 x 8.9 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Around 1888, when Millet painted Semana Santa, Seville, he appears to have visited the city of Seville during Holy Week, as seen in this unusually painterly sketch.

Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912), The Widow (c 1891), oil on canvas, 71.1 x 121.9 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

During the 1890s, if not before, Millet bought an old house in England, Abbot’s Grange in Broadway, Worcestershire. Originally built in the fourteenth century, it had fallen into a ruin and Millet salvaged and restored it. He turned its old refectory into his studio, where he painted The Widow in about 1891, which was exhibited that year at the Royal Academy in London.

Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912), An Autumn Idyll (1892), oil on canvas, 54.8 x 33.6 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

In An Autumn Idyll from the following year he returned to classics, this time even more strongly Aesthetic in style. These two young women are picking grapes somewhere on a Mediterranean coast.

Between Two Fires c.1892 by Francis Davis Millet 1846-1912
Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912), Between Two Fires (c 1892), oil on canvas, 74 x 91.4 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Probably from the same year, Between Two Fires returns to Abbot’s Grange for this scene from the First English Civil War of 1642–1646. The dour Puritan is sat between two young women who seem intent on his temptation.

Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912), Thesmophoria (1894-97), oil on canvas, 90.2 x 156.2 cm, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, UT. Wikimedia Commons.

In the mid-1890s Millet painted another scene from classical Greece, showing the Thesmophoria (1894-97). This was an annual festival of fertility, both human and agricultural, celebrated exclusively by adult women of ancient Greece, in honour of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Its rites were kept secret, but involved the sacrifice of pigs rather than the white bull shown here.

On 10 April 1912, Millet and Archibald Butt boarded the Titanic in Cherbourg, France, on their return to the US. Five days later, both of them died when the ship hit an iceberg. At about 0400, after steaming at speed through waters made treacherous by icebergs, RMS Carpathia arrived and started rescuing survivors, almost exclusively from the Titanic’s lifeboats. By 0900, over seven hundred had been recovered.

On board the Carpathia was the painter Colin Campbell Cooper and his wife, who were also returning to the US. He took the opportunity to paint some gouache views of the rescue, which I’ll show tomorrow.


Wikipedia on Frank Millet.
Wikipedia on the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain.