(Part II of a blog post on Hingham artist Franklin Whiting Rogers. Part I can be found here.)
Rogers was born in 1854 in Cambridge, the middle son of three boys born to Edward Coit Rogers, a widower, and his second wife, Elizabeth Lothrop Seymour, daughter of Joel and Polly (Whiton) Seymour of Hingham. Edward and Elizabeth were both educated, intellectual, active in social reform and the abolitionist movement, authors and members of the Universalist Society.
In 1856, Edward suffered failing health so Elizabeth brought her young sons and their half-brothers back to Hingham to live with her family. Edward died in 1860 and young Franklin was raised in Hingham until age 16, when he moved to Boston to attend art school.
He later entered the studio of J. Foxcroft Cole, a fine painter in the French Barbizon style then fashionable: nostalgic rural landscapes often in misty light. A talented student, Rogers advanced rapidly with his master. European training was considered essential to further a painter’s career so Cole turned his promising student over to artist Thomas Robinson of Boston who studied in Paris and excelled in painting of animals and landscapes, which later became Rogers’ specialties.
Robinson made frequent buying trips to Europe for prominent New England art dealers, as did fellow Boston artist William Morris Hunt, who helped introduce the Barbizon painters to the avid Boston art market. Robinson also promoted local artists and it was through his studio that young Rogers met Hunt, then at the height of his career. Hunt, a respected teacher, became a lasting influence on Rogers’ career as an inspiration and mentor: his guide-book for artists taught “a way of seeing that stressed emotional carrying power and individual feeling expressed in a painterly style.” Hunt’s work was influenced by the technical bravura of French artist Thomas Couture and the spiritual fervor of Jean-Francois Millet.
Rogers exhibited often and widely and in 1884 returned to Hingham with an established reputation and following for both his animal and landscape subjects. Working from a studio on High Street, he expanded his circle of artist mentors and friends and became acquainted with Winckworth Allan Gay and Alexander Pope, noted local artists. In 1886, Rogers moved his studio to 33 Free Street where he bought a home; he worked there until the end of his life in 1917. The studio no longer exists but his house has remained in the family where his grandson, David, and wife, Shirley, live today.
Rogers painted “alla prima,” a more straightforward broad application of paint compared to the classical technique of building a painting with a series of transparent glazes over a monochrome underpainting. Strictly defined, an “alla prima” painting would be started and finished in one session but the term is also more loosely applied to any painting done in a direct and expressive style that promotes painterly freshness of response to the subject.
But Sisters, or Four Hounds (reproduced below) was not painted in one afternoon! Capturing the poetic informality of the pile of sleeping dogs on a dusty blanket, required a great deal of preparation—followed by revisions, over-painting and even some glazes for the finishing touch.
Rogers would begin by creating charcoal or pencil studies of group-ings as well as studies of each animal to get acquainted with their personality and body. A series of small “thumbnails” would be created next as he experimented with the group composition – finally settling on a classic pyramid grouping that leads your eye in a circle of nodding heads. Next, value studies would help establish his patterns of light and dark born known as “chiascuro,” that serves to model the dogs’ bodies and organize the interior space.
When ready to paint, the artist likely prepared the stretched canvas by toning it with a middle-value wash, perhaps of an umber. (This enables a painter to better assess his colors when not seen against a white canvas.)
His next step would be to create “a map,” lightly drawn marks to indicate the shapes in his composition—or he may have massed in shadow shapes with thin paint and used a rag to pull out paint for areas of light. When satisfied with this preparation, Rogers mixed oil colors on his palette and applied them according to the rule of thumb “lean over fat,” which means initial paint strokes would be executed with paint thinned a bit with turpentine with the thickest application of paint, “impasto,” saved for areas in light painted last.
There might have been multiple sittings with the animals throughout the process of painting to ensure he expressed each dog’s individual character. “Eye candy” would be those last accents that enliven the work and lend an individual truth and charm: the highlights on a dog’s brow and paws, the texture of fur, the fuzz on the blanket. The painting process probably took several weeks before Rogers was satisfied that he had captured the spirit of his sitters and resolved the formal painterly issues that helped create a masterpiece