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]

Prince Demah, Portrait Painter

Prince Demah, Portrait of Christian Barnes. Hingham Historical Society. Photo (c) James Vradelis

One of our Society’s co-founders, Susan Barker Willard, bequeathed a treasure trove of art, furniture, and documents which she had inherited from her Barker, Thaxter, and Willard family ancestors. Much of it has furnished our 1688 Old Ordinary house museum since the early part of the last century. Two paintings in particular have always been favorites, especially on the fifth grade school tours that are a rite of passage in the Hingham Public Schools.  They are a pair of 18th century oil portraits of Henry and Christian Barnes of Marlborough, Massachusetts.

Henry Barnes had no family connection to our town of Hingham, but Christian had friends and relatives here.  Her mother’s family were Barkers from the South Shore. Henry was a distiller, manufacturer of pearl ash (an early chemical leavener), and trader in British manufactured goods. They were Loyalists and forced to flee Marlborough for England in late 1775 after some violent incidents (including, it has been reported, the tarring and feathering of Henry’s horse). The Barnes portraits are each damaged in the chest area, and the lore is that the portraits—left at their estate—were the victims of Marlborough patriots.

Portrait of Henry Barnes by Prince Demah.  Hingham Historical Society Photo (c) James T. Vradelis

Prince Demah, Portrait of Henry Barnes. HIngham Historical Society. Photo (c) James Vradelis

Members of Marlborough’s financial elite, the Barneses owned three slaves in the early 1770s. Thanks to Christian’s prolific correspondence, we have known for some time that Prince, the son of their slave Daphney, was a talented artist. (Prince’s mother, Daphney, features in a set of letters in our archives. She was the subject of an earlier post in this blog, “A Letter from Daphney.”) In the first letter that mentions Prince, Christian writes, that “Prince is here and I am sitting to him for my picture.”  A month later, in November 1769, she reports that Henry has purchased Prince, with a view towards “improving his genius in painting.”  From there, Christian’s appreciation for Prince’s talent grows.  In an early 1770 letter, she reports that he is

a most surprising instance of the force of natural Genius for without the least instruction or improvement he has taken several faces which are thought to be very well done. He has taken a copy of my picture which I think has more of my resemblance than Copling’s [sic].

(She is referring to John Singleton Copley, a colonial American painter famous for his portraits of 18th century Bostonians.)

The original manuscripts of Christian’s letters are at the Library of Congress, but we are lucky to have, in our Old Derby Academy archives, a set of typescripts made in the early 20th century—also the gift of Susan Barker Willard.  In her letters, among her friends, and even in a set of newspaper advertisements, Christian passed the word about Prince:

As soon as the roads are tolerable I propose going to Boston in order to recommend our Limner to the Publick. I should be glad to have your judgment as to his performance and likewise your advice how I shall proceed with him. He has taken five pictures from the life since his return. Three of them as good likenesses as ever Mr. Copling took. I am in no doubt but he could coppy a picture as well as anybody in the Country.

Christian’s enthusiasm made it impossible for us to stop thinking about Prince the painter—particularly since our two Barnes portraits were painted in the 1770s and were unattributed.  We continued to learn more about Prince and his remarkable life but were unable to connect the dots between Prince and the Barnes portraits. (The paintings are unsigned and when they were restored in the 1930s a heavy layer of masonite was placed over the back of the canvas, obliterating any obvious clues.

Portrait of William Duguid by Prince Demah.  Metropolitan Museum of Art

Prince Demah, Portrait of William Duguid.  Metropolitan Museum of Art

In late 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened an exhibit called “Interwoven Globe,” on the 18th century international trade in textiles. The exhibition included a modest portrait of a Scottish textile merchant, painted in 1773 and signed, on a stretcher on the back of the canvas, “Prince Demah Barnes.”

We got in touch with the Metropolitan and were able to share what we had learned about Prince. The Metropolitan invited us to bring our two portraits to its Paintings Conservation Department, where they were examined using x-radiographs and infrared reflectography. The Metropolitan concluded that its signed painting by Prince and our two Barnes portraits were all by the same artist.  We have co-authored an article about the three paintings which appears in this month’s issue of Antiques magazine.

Prince enjoyed a short professional painting career before the Revolution changed the lives of Christian, Henry, and Prince.  Christian and Henry fled and Prince enlisted in the Massachusetts militia as a free man–Prince Demah (no more “Barnes”)–and served as a matross. He died, likely of smallpox or other disease, in March 1778. As “Prince Demah, limner,” he wrote his will, leaving all he had to Daphney.

Prince Demah’s will.  Massachusetts State Archives

These three portraits by Prince Demah are the earliest known paintings by an African-American to be located and identified. It appears that Prince was only allowed to focus on his art for around ten years, but we know that he made other portraits as well—in oils and with “crayons,” or what we call pastels today. The next step: seeing if we can identify any more of his paintings.  As we at the Hingham Historical Society now know, one (or two) of them could be  found just about any place.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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