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Monday, November 9, 2009

Between Two Fires

The table is set with simple fare: a loaf of bread, a green glass flagon of red wine, and a portion of pie ready to be served up onto a peuter plate. Hands crossed upon each other, the puritan is poised to say grace so that his meal can commence (below). If only it were that straightforward. Uneasily he glances around at one of the two distracting serving maids who are the 'fires' of the painting's title, as the other leans confrontingly towards him from the opposite side of the oaken table. Whichever way he turns, he must meet the coquettish gaze of one or other of them. Clearly they mean no real ill, but the puritan's starched dignity presents too soft a target to resist for a little harmless teasing, and the sprig of seasonal *mistletoe decorating the chandelier provides the excuse for their taunts.

It would be easy to dismiss as sentimental the now-unfashionable narrative style of this painting by Massachusetts-born Francis (Frank) Davis Millet. But to do so would be to do the painting an injustice. The narrative elements aside, Millet's canvas captures an interior light so tangible that we might have to look to Johan Vermeer for a quality of light as intense as this. Vermeer was, of course, the master of such interior light, and could deploy his genius to summon it's magic seemingly at will. From what I have seen of his other work, Millet captured it only once; in this painting. But that 'once' is so sublime, that everything in the painting, from the wine flagon to the rack of clay pipes on the serving table (detail, below) seems coated with this same cool light and soft, diffuse shadows so typical of a European interior.

And Millet deploys his color palette with great assurance. The overall muted warm and cool greys are offset against russet greens and browns, which are themselves counterpointed by the stark blacks of the puritan's garb and the bold broad stripes of the second maid's bodice and sleeves (detail, below). The textures as well are tangible. The white linen of the tablecloth, the coarser textile of the first maid's striped underskirt, dark wood, brass, glass, peuter, copper and flagstone floor are all given their due attention.

The scene is, of course, artifice. Millet apparently used a professional model - a Miss Green - to pose for both of the serving maids. And the puritan has the body of one of Millet's male models, with the face of a dour Scottish neighbor - a certain Linsay MacArthur - superimposed to capture the required facial expression. The interior was Millet's own home - the 14th century Abbey Grange in Broadway, Worcestershire. But knowing these details need not detract from Millet's accomplishment. The tableau is so charming that we find ourselves wanting to be convinced by the scene.

En route to the United States in 1912, Frank Millet took a first-class passage on the maiden voyage of the White Star Line's R.M.S. Titanic. He was last seen alive helping women and children into the lifeboats as the striken vessel settled lower into the water. His body was recovered from the North Atlantic waters, and taken for burial to East Bridgewater Cemetery, Plymouth County, in his native Massachusetts, where it now rests.

Artist: Francis Davis Millet
Work: Between Two Fires, c.1892
Medium: Oils
Location: The Tate Gallery, London

'Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists', by Ronald Alley. Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981.
'The World's Greatest Paintings, *Vol. II', edited by T. Leman Hare. Odhams Press, Ltd., 1934.

*My image for this post has been scanned from the above volume. Luxurious for their time, the color plate reproductions of this three-volume publication are nevertheless inevitably coarse by today's standards. For this reason I have not been entirely successful in eliminating the dot-screen with anti-aliasing, but as far as I have been able to trace things, this still represents the best image of this painting currently available on the Web, and I hope that other readers will enjoy seeing its details - just click on the first image here.

*For anyone reading this who is unfamiliar with European Christmas traditions (several of which, such as the mistletoe and the traditional tree, have been borrowed from earlier pagan customs): a sprig of mistletoe is hung inside. Anyone who happens to find themselves beneath the mistletoe is tradition-bound to grant a kiss to the person who asks them.


  1. I just love this picture. I have a print in my dining room, the story is always a source of amusement. Thank you for posting it here Hawkwood.

    1. You're welcome, Cynthia. It is a picture (as a reproduction in a book) familiar to me from my childhood, and long one of my own favourites. How charmingly appropriate that you have the print in your dining room!

  2. Beautiful, heartfelt explanation. Thanks.

  3. The reason for the girls' taunts is surely the Puritans refusal to celebrate Christmas - under the Commonwealth it was illegal to do so. The holly shows that it is Christmas and the girls have put a large loaf and a big flask of (forbidden) wine in front of our Puritan. 'Come on, get tucked in' they're saying.

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