Francis Davis Millet was a celebrated American academic painter, illustrator, muralist, sculptor, and journalist. He earned critical acclaim for his broad-ranging career in both the United States and Europe before his untimely death on the Titanic in 1912. Millet was born in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, the son of a surgeon. During the Civil War, the artist enlisted in the 60th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, serving as a drummer boy and a surgical assistant to his father. Following his service, Millet enrolled at Harvard University where he later received a degree in modern languages and literature in 1869. After completing his studies, Millet followed an interest in journalism and worked as a writer and editor for various Boston-area publications. In 1871, Millet attended the Royal Academy in Antwerp, and he earned numerous awards for his outstanding work over the course of two years.
Millet spent the 1870s traveling and working as an artist in Europe, yet he continued to pursue journalism. Working for publications such as the New York Herald, the London Daily News, and the London Graphic, Millet traveled to the front lines of the Russo-Turkish War. Millet also reviewed and critiqued international art exhibitions, including the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, he developed a body of work that reflected his travels, painting Near Eastern and ancient Roman subjects in an academic style he learned in Antwerp. Millet’s early paintings were exhibited at institutions such as the National Academy of Design in New York, the Paris Salon, and the British Royal Academy in London.
By the 1880s, Millet primarily resided in England where he was a prominent and influential figure among a circle that included Edwin Austin Abbey, George Henry Boughton, James McNeill Whistler, and John Singer Sargent among others. The artists expatriated to England seeking better educational and financial opportunities. Aside from practical matters, the artists were inspired by England’s rich and storied history. Millet had a particular fondness for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and he used period costumes and furnishings in his interior scenes to evoke the past. The picturesque, vernacular architecture, and the idealized domestic settings painted by Millet and his contemporaries were in contrast with the rapid industrialization that occurred outside the contrived scenes.
In 1884, Millet, Abbey, Sargent, Alfred Parsons, Henry James, and others formed a bohemian artists’ colony at Broadway in the Cotswolds. Millet made Broadway his permanent residence and set up his studio at Abbots Grange, a fourteenth century manor house. Millet was the center of the colony, and his home and studio were the setting for many artist’s paintings, including Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, painted in the gardens of Millet’s house. Sargent was a devoted friend of the Millets, painting portraits of the children, and of Lily, Millet’s wife.
The Window Seat is one of Millet’s earliest English genre scenes. It depicts a sitting room in a quaint English cottage, with the artist’s wife, Lily, busily engaged in handiwork. Lily wears an early nineteenth-century muslin dress and fichu and sits on the deep windowsill with her feet propped on the turned-backed, rush-seated chair. The figure sits close to the window, using the natural light to complete her needlework, a symbol of the domestic sphere that was increasingly valued in the late nineteenth century. The room in which she works is a simple, utilitarian space with muslin curtains, spare furniture, and several decorative objects such as the clay glazed vase that holds a bouquet of wildflowers. With its emphasis on color, light, and the theme of domesticity, The Window Seat shows Millet’s influence of Dutch Old Master paintings.
More than an idealized domestic genre scene, The Window Seat is a careful study of light. Millet skillfully depicts a stream of luminous sunlight passing into the cottage through the expansive windows. The light softly filters through the ethereal white curtains and the figure’s gauzy dress, creating an aura around the figure. Millet subtly paints the reflection of the sunlight off the polished wooden table and the ledge on which the figure sits. Millet’s use of contrasting colors and his handling of white paint to depict the effects of sunlight echoes Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, where color was the primary subject.
Before establishing himself as a major figure in the Broadway artist’s colony, Millet spent several seasons at Lechlade, a small village in Oxfordshire, England, where illustrator and painter Edwin Austin Abbey was known to work. Millet purportedly staged his composition for The Window Seat at The Swan Inn in Lechlade, a sixteenth century posting tavern that was a window to the past. In 1882, Abbey used a similar room and subject for his watercolor The Two Sisters, originally published in Harper’s Magazine in 1883. Abbey’s painting depicts two young women wearing early nineteenth century clothing and playing the pianoforte, a suitable domestic activity.
Millet led a very productive career, achieving numerous accomplishments in addition to his easel paintings. He was actively involved in many international world’s fairs, working in various roles as juror, decorator, advisor, and muralist for fairs in Philadelphia, Vienna, Chicago, Paris and Tokyo. Millet also worked on interior decorative schemes with John La Farge at Trinity Church, Boston, and with Louis Comfort Tiffany on the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York in 1880. Millet also accepted painting commissions, completing murals in the US Customs House in Baltimore, the Minnesota State Capital, and the Federal Building and the Cleveland Trust Company building in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1891, Millet was elected as vice president of The National Academy of Design in New York. He later founded the American Federation of Arts and was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The Window Seat, ca. 1883
Oil on canvas
20 x 30 inches
Signed lower right
Charles Fairchild, Boston (by 1893)
C.W. Deschamps, 1a Bond Street
Fleming Newbold, Washington, D.C.
Allan A. Ryan III, New York
The Jordan-Volpe Gallery, New York
Manoogian Collection, acquired from the above in 1986
Private Collection, MI, acquired from the above in 2019