Francis Davis Millet and the Titanic
“No chapter of fictional adventure can rival a chapter in the real life of Mr. Millet. Soldier of fortune, adventurer, war correspondent, art student, and artist, he seems to have been constituted of stuff which makes dramatic events possible.” – Washington Times, April 16, 1912
Francis Davis Millet, an American artist, was born in 1848 Massachusetts and died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912. He was 65 at the time of his death.
As a young teenage, Millet served in the Union army during the American Civil War, first as a drummer boy and then as a surgical assistant to his father. Following his time in the military, he was educated from and graduated from Harvard as a Master of Arts.
Millet was a writer, painter, sculptor, and was close friends with many artists, including John Singer Sargent, who painted portraits of Millet’s family. Mark Twain was also a close friend and acted as the best man in Millet’s wedding to Elizabeth Greely Merrill in 1879. Later in his life, Millet was a member of many important art and cultural institutions, including the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and was a founding member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.
In 1912, Millet was traveling to New York City on business for the American Academy of Arts and Letters and boarded the famously ill-fated Titanic.
On the night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg in the frigid North Atlantic Ocean. Two hours later, in the early hours of April 15, the Titanic sank, resulting in the deaths of between 1,490 and 1,635 people.
Millet was traveling as a First Class passenger on the ship and sent several conversational telegrams to friends and family while on his voyage. On the fateful night of April 14, Millet was last seen helping women and children into lifeboats and then giving his own life preserver to a woman exiting the ship. Right after the disaster, it was originally reported that Millet had, in fact, been saved and was in charge of one of the lifeboats due to his experience manning small vessels. However, this report proved to be false, much to the horror of many, including United States President William Howard Taft.
In the days following the sinking, Millet’s body was recovered by a cable boat and his remains interred in Central Cemetery in Massachusetts. On the day of Millet’s funeral, President Taft sent a large floral display for Millet’s coffin.
Frances Davis Millet left a rich legacy in the realm of art in America and in much of the Western world. The BYU Museum of Art is honored to have one painting by Millet in the collection—Thesmophoria—which was most recently on display in the Shaping America exhibition.
Thesmophoria is a finished sketch for a large mural in the Bank of Pittsburgh. In the Aesthetic era, allegorical figures of women in white adorned the walls of state capitals, courthouses, hotels, and banks. Millet presents a procession of beautiful women in white performing the ancient Greek festival of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. A French-trained artist, Millet painted the mural from his English home in the Cotswolds. Models included his neighbors, Mrs. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and the American actress Mary Anderson.
Millet’s granddaughter, Joyce A. Sharpey-Schafer, recollected the works created for public buildings such as state capitals. Of the many works created she remembered one in particular and expressed, “One of these I remember vividly, a reproduction of it hung at the top of the stairs in our childhood home. On the way to bed, I would stop and stare at his Thesmophoria.”
Image: Francis Davis Millet (1846-1912), Thesmophoria, oil on canvas, 1894-1897. Purchased with funds provided by Ira and Mary Lou Fulton.