Frank Vining Smith’s South Seas Mural

Frank Vining Smith, American (1879-67). South Sea Island Scene

Last summer, the Hingham Historical Society received the generous gift of a large (5.5’ x 7.5’) mural with a South Seas islands scene.  It had been painted directly onto a horsehair plaster wall on the back porch of a home on Hingham’s Main Street. For decades it was hidden behind wall paneling until it was accidentally discovered during a 2011 house renovation undertaken by homeowners Frank and Patricia Hanrahan. The Hanrahans immediately understood this exciting find because they had traced the ownership of their home and knew that from 1931 to 1939 it had been owned by noted marine artist Frank Vining Smith and his wife Nella. Smith is considered one of Americas foremost marine artists and is especially well known for his romantic portrayal of clipper ships from the “Golden Age of Sail.” Although the mural doesn’t depict Smith’s typical subject, the painterly brushwork and color suggest Smith’s style.

Mural on the porch wall at 640 Main Street, Hingham

The Hanrahans decided that this long hidden art work was a valuable part of the house’s history and hired Oliver Brothers of Boston, Fine Art Restoration and Conservation, to preserve and restore the damaged and fragile mural. Over several days the mural was painstakingly removed from the wall of the porch by applying a protective sealer to protect the painting while the crumbling horsehair plaster was shaved off the back. The painting you see is actually over a thin skin of plaster that is mounted to a metal panel which was re-installed at the Hanrahans’ home on the same back porch wall.

Although the large mural is an imagined Polynesian scene without a ship in sight, the unsigned work has hallmarks of Smith’s style: impressionistic painterly brushwork, dramatic color, and a romantic depiction of the sea. A further clue that the mural was most surely painted by Frank Vining Smith is similar tropical imagery and figures that can be seen in a watercolor sketch, Del Rio Shipboard Mural, in the collection of Heritage Museums & Gardens, Sandwich, MA. Frank Vining Smith’s long career included painting decorative mural commissions for interiors of private yachts and ships built by Bethlehem Steel at Fore River Shipyard.

Cover art from J. Craig, Frank Vining Smith: Maritime Painting in the 20th Century (2010)

Smith was born in Whitman and summered as a child on the Cape Cod seacoast in Bourne where he became an avid sailor and loved sketching nautical subjects. His natural talent led him to prepare for a career in art, initially as an illustrator. At the School of the Museum of Fine Arts his teachers were noted American Impressionists Edmund Tarbell and Frank Benson. They both strongly influenced Smith’s painterly style and his ability to depict figures. When Smith reached his mid-forties he had become successful enough to give up publishing work and devote himself entirely to painting. Having moved to Hingham in 1921, Smith perhaps knew fellow successful artists Franklin Whiting Rogers on Free Street and Louis and Beatrice Ruyl on Gardner Street.

The 1920s and 1930s have been called the “golden age of travel posters.”

The murals indigenous figures on a non-specific South Seas Islands beach may have been inspired by popular culture during the 1920-30s when the choice of a tropic idyll was perhaps a whim for a back porch used by family for relaxation and entertaining, open to sunlight through French doors to the garden beyond.

In New England there is a tradition of painted walls depicting far away harbor scenes as seen in homes of sea captains and wealthy Yankee shipowners. Could this scene be Frank Smiths playful take on a seafarers tradition? He was a man known to like a good joke.

Why does this fanciful 20th century mural hang in the Kelly Gallery of the Hingham Heritage Museum, where its bold imagery contrasts sharply with the fine antiques, more formal paintings, and historic artifacts on display?

First, the mural is a stunning artwork painted by a recognized master of marine art. Much of Smith’s work is in private collections and museums so it is a privilege for the Hingham Heritage Museum to display an original work.

Second, the painting sparks discussion of its cultural context. In the mural, native islanders wear tropical sarongs and pursue traditional activities: a woman dries fish in the sun, another bears a wide woven market basket on her head. She gazes admiringly at the strapping young fisherman proudly presenting his catch while a companion tends to the humble outrigger boat.  The idyllic scene is not typical of Smith’s work and may offer a glimpse of popular travel and tourist culture of the 1930s. The mural may also be explored within the sociological framework of “colonial imagination,” the stereotypes created about colonized people, to provide insight into how they may have marked a young artist coming of age at the height of American imperialism.

Installation in Kelly Gallery of the Hingham Heritage Museum, July 2020

Finally, the mural tells a great story of stewardship and historic preservation. The Hanrahans’ research led to a vital connection: noted Hingham artist Frank Vining Smith once lived at their 640 Main Street home. He likely painted the porch wall for pleasure before he and wife Nella built a new home in Hingham at 64 High Street—where wall murals by Smith were also discovered behind dining room walls, including one that also depicted a South Seas view.

Hingham is a town of antique homes. New home owners often renovate old houses, sometimes at a loss of valuable historical assets for Hingham. Fortunately Frank Vining Smiths captivating Polynesian mural was not destroyed, only covered up. The Hanrahans’ stewardship and gift contributes to the many varied stories that make up Hinghams history.

[Want to learn more?  Video of a June 2021 gallery talk by Joan Brancale on this painting can be found here.]


How Artist Joan Brancale Designed the Exhibit Mural for “Boxes, Buckets, and Toys: the Craftsmen of Hingham”

M1 Joan Brancale Hingham 1630 v2The birds’-eye view of Hingham Harbor, circa 1680, envisions Hingham as its earliest settlers found it, a heavily forested coastal village with a safe harbor and large tidal inlet called “Mill Pond.” The mural’s design concept, developed with Suzanne Buchanan, was to give context regarding the importance of the harbor for trade, the vast resource of timber that later helped drive the woodenware industry, and to depict how the early development of the village stemmed from the harbor front.

Working with exhibit designers Ed Malouf and Carol Lieb of Content Design Collaborative through a series of rough idea sketches, the following design evolved: M1 Joan Brancale Hingham 1630 NorthThe focus is on early North Street, later the route by which woodenware from village workshops of Hingham Centre and Hersey Street made their way down the harbor where ships awaited to carry them worldwide. The twilight setting was inspired by exhibit writer Carrie Brown’s description of candlelit homes in a world fueled and maintained by wood.

We see the village at twilight–simple homes, windows aglow—along “Town Road,” now North Street, where the first settlers were granted lots along an Indian path that followed Town Brook to what is now Beal Street. In the distance, I faintly M1 Joan Brancale Hingham 1630 Old Shipsuggested the steeple of Old Ship Church (not yet built) to help locate the site of an earlier meetinghouse on Main Street. At the harbor a single wharf, likely located at the mouth of Mill Pond, suggests the beginning of Hingham’s commercial harbor.  In later years, Hingham harbor’s many wharves were key to the success transporting goods produced by local tradesmen to Boston and beyond.

M1 Joan Brancale Hingham 1630 Mill PondThe viewer may be surprised at the prominence of Mill Pond—how it extends in the distance to what is now Home Meadows. This once broad expanse of water carried early settler Peter Hobart and company to their landing point at the foot of Ship Street at North Street. Mill Pond, flushed by tidal waters and fed by the Town Brook, is, alas, no longer.  In the late 1940s it was “paved over for a parking lot” along Station Street and the historic brook sent underground. The vestige of Mill Pond’s shoreline still remains, along the rear of old buildings lining the south side of North Street.

M1 Joan Brancale Hingham 1630 harbor detailResearch was important to surmise how Hingham Harbor may have first appeared to arriving settlers. I found no local 17th century drawings or paintings on which to base the design. Instead I used a variety of sources to help me understand what might be a plausible view. My research included:

  • Maps and harbor views of New Amsterdam and Boston and research done by the committee working on the development of Hingham Harbor’s Master Plan.
  • The 1893 History of Hingham, which provided information about the abundant hardwoods early settlers would have seen along the coast and drumlins of Hingham;
  • Not All is Changed, Russ and Lorena Hart’s aptly-titled history of Hingham, which includes early maps, including the first 12 lots granted along North Street, and vintage harborfront maps, which helped approximate the location of the first commercial wharf and buildings. These likely extended along Mill Pond near the grist mill, whose ancient foundation supports the old timbers of what is today called Liberty Grille.

Hingham Artists to Know: Franklin Whiting Rogers (Part II)

(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.

Franklin Whiting Rogers

Photograph of Franklin Whiting Rogers. Courtesy of David and Shirley Rogers of Hingham, Mass.

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.

Sisters, or Four Hounds

Sisters, or Four Hounds by Franklin Whiting Rogers

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

Hingham Artists to Know: Franklin Whiting Rogers

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.

Sisters or Four Hounds, c. 1880. This work of animal portraiture is unusual for its nearly life-size depiction of a group of dogs rather than a single animal proudly posed to display its best features.

Sisters or Four Hounds, c. 1880. This work of animal portraiture is unusual for its nearly life-size depiction of a group of dogs rather than a single animal proudly posed to display its best features.

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.

Detail of a landscape from Turkey Hill, c. 1880

Detail of a landscape from Turkey Hill, c. 1880

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.

His Dog Bruno, c. 1890

His Dog Bruno, c. 1890

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]

Lydia Sprague: Young Artist and Scholar (Part 2)

[Second part of a post about young Lydia Sprague, an artistic girl in 1840s Hingham]

Lydia attended school in the large upstairs room at Old Derby that we know today as the “ballroom.” The room was divided in two, with girls in the southeast half and boys in the northwest half. Up to 30 North Parish girls, age 9 or over, could attend the Academy. As a Hingham resident, Lydia’s minimal tuition included supplying her share of firewood during winter for the one stove in the room.

Girls were taught writing, English, French, arithmetic, geography, and needlework, a traditional skill for schoolgirls who demonstrated their proficiency by embroidering samplers.  Our prior post featured examples of Lydia’s penmanship exercises and maps; if any of her needlework survives, it did not come to us.

Drawing was also a desirable skill for young ladies and one at which Lydia Sprague clearly excelled. Her sketchbooks date from 1844 through 1846, beginning when she was 12 years old. They contain numerous landscape vignettes with figures and cottages, charming and detailed and derivative of engraved illustrations she may have seen in local gazettes, copies of European paintings or popular Currier and Ives prints. Copying such images was a common way for a motivated student to develop drawing skills.




Some sketches in her books appear to be imaginary scenes–

IMG_3214 –but others appear to have been influenced by direct observation. Many landscapes include a bay-shaped expanse of water that suggests Hingham Harbor.


Other than her school work and drawings, we know little about Lydia Sprague’s life. She grew up in Hingham Center, married young, and had no children. In all likelihood, she set aside her artistic ambitions when the demands of married life shifted her priorities. Similarly, the story of her sketchbooks before they came into the Society’s collection is also a mystery. Lydia’s survive today in very good condition, perhaps treasured and protected for decades by a doting niece or nephew before finding their way into our collection.


Lydia Sprague: Young Artist and Scholar (Part 1)

IMG_3205Our archives contain a partial school record of an artistic young Hingham scholar.  Her name was Lydia Sprague, and she attended Derby Academy from 1844, when she was 12, through 1846. Her sketchbook, hand-drawn maps, copybook, and other school work provide a glimpse into schoolwork at Derby Academy in the mid-19th century and reveal a schoolgirl’s love of drawing and a desire to excel by attention to detail.

Lydia’s small sketches of possibly local scenes, landscapes, and figures engaged in play and daily life suggest a family talent shared with the more famous Hingham artist Isaac Sprague. Isaac Sprague, an older second cousin, was born in 1811. Like Lydia, he was the son of a box-cooper and grew up in Hingham Center. It is likely that Lydia knew and looked up to her cousin Isaac.

Isaac Sprague was a self-taught artist and naturalist who met early success when he accompanied John Jay Audubon on the 1843 expedition up the Missouri River that led to Audobon’s famous portfolio, “Quadrupeds of North America.” An obituary of Isaac Sprague quoted him as saying, on the subject of his training, “I always had a fondness of making pictures and made small drawings at school.”

IMG_3216Young Lydia Sprague also made “small drawings at school,” and we have in our collection three of her pencil sketchbooks, highly detailed maps of American states and territories, and a copy book of exquisite penmanship. This fascinating legacy conveys her individual achievement as a diligent student and young artist.

The repetitive penmanship exercises of moral phrases and the exhaustive information included on her maps provide a glimpse of Derby Academy’s high expectations both of virtuous behavior and proficiency in these areas of study.


Before the advent of universal public primary and secondary education, most children who received a good education had affluent parents who could pay for it. Lydia was the daughter of a box-cooper and born in 1832, when most Hingham girls of her class were taught only enough reading, writing, and arithmetic and needlework to prepare them for their lives as the wives or tradesmen, mariners, and artisans. IMG_3198She had the good fortune to have been raised by parents who valued education and who enrolled her for a few years at Derby Academy. This progressive school, the first in New England to offer a rigorous education to girls, was founded shortly after the Revolution and perhaps reflected a new republication concern that women be prepared to raise knowledgeable and patriotic citizens.

–To be continued