In the ballroom of Old Derby hangs a grand, late 19th-century masterpiece of canine portraiture titled Sisters or Four Hounds. It was painted by Franklin Whiting Rogers (1854-1917), who lived in Hingham most of his life. He painted from his studio and home on Free Street for most of a long career which spanned the post Civil War years until 1917.
The somnolent dogs, piled together on an old rusty brown rug, are painted life-size and up close. The painting is so evocative it almost breathes the scent and sighs of warm sleepy dogs who are resting after the hunt and have just enjoyed the reward of a big meal.
There is a large snowy landscape by Rogers that hangs in Hingham’s Town Hall by a second floor meeting room—you can see it on the way to a hearing or meeting. Broadly painted and bathed in sunshine, the snowy scene is a sweeping view from Turkey Hill, according to family lore. Down the hill behind treetops is an unidentified building with a tall stack—perhaps an old shingle mill. The painting captures the frosty atmosphere of sky and subtle color shifts of snow.
These two paintings have long been available for us to see but probably few know much about the artist, who was raised in Hingham and became a talented and successful painter. Both works exemplify his success at painting subjects much in demand by Boston art collectors during the 19th century: rural landscapes and portraits of pets and livestock.
Country landscapes infused with atmospheric light became very popular after Boston artist William Morris Hunt introduced and promoted French Barbizon-style paintings to New England in the 1850s. American artists were quick to fulfill the public’s taste.
Canine portraiture had a long tradition in Britain and the fashion carried “across the pond.” Wealthy dog fanciers and sports-men would commission portraiture for their home or perhaps to lend masculine décor for a men’s club. Rogers’ dog portraits were forthright, sincere and unsentimental. He found a niche and it was said, “his connection with animals was almost uncanny. . . . [M]any a model posed for him as if it were a pleasure.”
During an era when Boston was considered a premier art center and “The Athens of America,” Rogers exhibited widely, was well connected, and was highly respected by his peers. His 1917 obituary praised him as an artist “endowed with a strong personality and rare gifts.” Rare gifts indeed for keen observation, technical expertise and the ability to convey his love for nature and animals:
As he studied animals so he studied trees and truly grasped their character. He was ever fond of nature. A long life spent in the woods and fields along the shores of this and neighboring towns filled his mind with knowledge and love of the more subtle and delicate aspects of landscape.
Whether painting landscape or animals, Rogers’ sensitive empathetic nature enabled his work to be expressive of an individual character, not just a generic likeness. Throughout life Rogers owned many dogs and painted them with love and respect. His Dog Bruno is an endearing portrait of a black mixed breed that hangs in our Historical Society archives.
Due to eye problems in his last years, Rogers turned to painting “en plein air.” His difficulties did not prevent him from continuing to be a prolific and talented painter.
[To be continued]