Francis Davis Millet was born on November 3, 1846 in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. At age sixteen, Millet entered the Massachusetts regiment, first as a drummer boy and then a surgical assistant (helping his father, a surgeon) in the American Civil War. He repeatedly pointed to his experience working for his father as giving him an appreciation for the vivid blood red that he repeatedly used in his early paintings. He graduated from Harvard with a Master of Arts degree. He worked as a reporter and editor for the Boston Courier and then as a correspondent for the "Advertiser" at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.
A well-regarded American Academic Realist, Millet was close friends with Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Mark Twain, both of whom were present at his 1879 marriage to Elizabeth Merrill in Paris, France; Twain was his best man. He was also well acquainted with the impressionist artist John Singer Sargent, who often used Millet's daughter Kate as a model, as well as the esteemed Huxley family.
Millet became a member of the Society of American Artists in 1880, and in 1885 was elected as a member of the National Academy of Design, New York and as Vice-Chairman of the Fine Arts Committee. He was made a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and sat on the advisory committee of the National Gallery of Art. He was decorations director for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where he is credited with having invented the first form of spray paint. His career included work with a number of worlds' fairs, including Vienna, Chicago, Paris, and Tokyo, where he made contributions as a juror, administrator, mural painter/decorator, or adviser.
Millet was among the founders of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and was influential in the early days of the American Federation of Arts He was instrumental in obtaining the appointment of Emil Otto Grundmann, an old acquaintance from his Antwerp days, as first head of the School. Millet was involved with the American Academy in Rome from its inception and served as Secretary from 1904-1911. He died aboard the Titanic while traveling to New York City on Academy business.
Millet was a writer and journalist as well as an artist. He translated Tolstoy and also wrote essays and short stories. Among his publications are Capillary Crime and Other Stories (1892) and Expedition to the Philippines (1899). He was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was also an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects.
On April 10, 1912, Millet boarded the R.M.S. Titanic at Cherbourg, France bound for New York City. He was last seen helping women and children into lifeboats. His body was recovered after the sinking by the cable boat Mackay-Bennett and returned to East Bridgewater, Massachusetts where he was buried in Central Cemetery.