Francis Davis Millet, a Titanic loss for New Bedford

The City of New Bedford lost what would have been an important work of art when RMS Titanic sailed into history 100 years ago today.

Aboard the doomed ship was Mattapoisett native son, Francis Davis Millet. Like other local artists – Albert Bierstadt and William Bradford before him – Millet rose to prominence in the international art world. He was particularly involved in the conceptual design of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892 in Chicago and he won numerous international awards for his work.

Millet went down with the ship and purportedly with him, went plans for a panoramic mural of New Bedford history, which he agreed to create for the walls of the newly expanded New Bedford Free Public Library, which only recently had reopened in 1912 in the fully rebuilt “Old City Hall” that had sustained extensive fire damage in 1906.

The Millet mural was to encompass the ornate concave cove connecting the walls and ceiling above the internal oculus of the third floor. The mural was to depict Gosnold’s 1602 discovery of the harbor, the Whaling Era and the thriving textile industry of 1912.

Millet’s 1903 mural for the Call Room of Baltimore’s Custom-House provides a hint of what the New Bedford Mural might have looked like. A photo of Millet and his assistants at work on the Baltimore mural survives and reveals that he included a whale ship in that scene.

A synopsis of Millet’s many accomplishments are well noted in Artists of New Bedford; A Biographical Dictionary, by Mary Jean Blasdale, published at the New Bedford Whaling Museum by the Old Dartmouth Historical Society in 1990.

In the 61st Annual Report of the Library in 1912, Librarian George H. Tripp lamented “Mr. Millet’s death, before the beginning of the mural decorations which were to adorn the library walls and at the same time commemorate allegorically certain features of New Bedford past, was a serious misfortune to New Bedford. The artist, in his letters to New Bedford people, previous to his death, had indicated that he was about ready to be begin the series of paintings which he had thought out as appropriate. While the decorations of the walls will, in all probability, be treated somewhat after the original plan at some time in the future, the trustees feel that Mr. Millet was the one man for the work, because of his reputation for fine attainment, and because of his familiarity with the traditions of the calling which it was understood he would illustrate.”

The Trustees voted in 1912 to purchase “the well-known picture, “The Black Sheep,” from the heirs of Francis D. Millet.” It still hangs in the library today. Millet rests in Central Cemetery, East Bridgewater – his boyhood home after Mattapoisett.

Tripp was correct in his assessments but for the assumption that a mural similar to Millet’s conception would be accomplished. It was not to be.

A little more than a decade ago, while the Library’s final restoration phase was underway, there was some interest in seeing a mural realized in the style of Millet. However, it did not happen, due to funding – and perhaps more importantly – because Millet’s grand design dissolved in the deep on that cold April night. The Library cove remains a blank canvas; silent testament of what could have been, but for the hand of fate.

5 responses to “Francis Davis Millet, a Titanic loss for New Bedford

  1. Thanks for calling attention to F. D. Millet and providing tag files to explore his works.

  2. I have two letters written by Millet discussing his plans for the whaling mural. The last was written two months before his death. I would be glad to share copies.

  3. I have two original letters from FD Millet in which he discusses the New Bedford mural. The last was written in February 1912 shortly before he left for Europe. If you would like copies please let me know,

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