• Art Box Project: J. A. S. Monks

    John Austin Sands Monks

    John A. S. Monks, the great painter of sheep. Photo by Shattuck, Boston.

    John A. S. Monks, the great painter of sheep. Photo by Shattuck, Boston.

    John Austin Sands Monks was a Medfield resident and an artist nationally recognized for his unusual etchings of sheep. He was also commissioned to paint Jack—the beloved dog who had saved his master, Medfield’s much-loved town doctor, from a harrowing near-drowning. Monks and his wife Olive also built the still-standing Monks Block on her father’s property in 1888, which looks much the same today. Read on for details from the Medfield Historical Society on these and other fascinating details of one of Medfield’s renowned artists.

    John Austin Sands Monks was born in Cold Spring, N.Y. on Nov. 7, 1850. Early in his life he had a talent for carving in wood, especially boats and other craft that sailed the Hudson River.

    At age 18, he moved to Connecticut and became an apprentice with a large firm of engravers. At age 19, in 1869, he went into business for himself and began a successful etching business. It was at this time that he moved to Boston. In Boston he met artist George Cass.

    Cass was a student of George Inness, who at the time was painting in Medfield. A prominent firm of picture dealers arranged an exhibition of Mr. Cass’s work and they asked Monks for some sketches to fill out the exhibition. His sketches attracted a great deal of attention and were sold at a good price.

    His work also attracted the attention of George Inness, who invited Monks to come out to Medfield. Here, Monks shared Inness’s studio on 406 Main St. They developed a friendship that lasted until Inness’s death in 1894. Around this same time, another young artist by the name of John Jesse Francis was gaining notoriety in Boston. As a friend of Cass’s, Francis too came out to Medfield to paint with George Inness. Francis found the Medfield scenery “that which delights the eye.” He rented a small house on Main Street as his studio, which today we know as the Peak House.

    In Medfield, Monks met Olive Young, the granddaughter of Elijah Thayer, who owned the lot and house at the northwest corner of Main and North Streets. It would be Monks and his wife Olive who would build the block that is currently on that location. Today the Block, known as either Thayer Block or Monks Block, is a prominent feature to Medfield Center and contains several stores and offices, including Royal Pizza and Medfield Properties.

    Monks Block

    Monks Block in Medfield Center, completed by John and Olive Monks in 1888. Credit: Medfield Historical Society.

    When it was first built in 1888, the Block was occupied by four stores, which had entrances on North Street; James W. Conger Dry Goods, Edward Newell Meat and Provisions, the Post Office and the dress making parlor of Elizabeth Sewell. There were and still are eight rooms on the second floor, which originally contained a hallway that had an entrance leading into the “Old Thayer House,” which was then a boarding house.

    The “Old Thayer House” was torn down in 1923 shortly after the Block and the house were sold to George H. Sauer. The third floor contains Thayer Hall, one of the most impressive halls in the town. The hall was used for many years by the International Order of Odd Fellows. Today, due to zoning, parking and fire regulations the hall goes unused. Next to the Block was a small building, part of today’s , that Monks used as his art studio.

    In 1877, Monks married Olive Young. It was at this time that he became a member of both the Boston Art Club and the New York Etching Club. In 1886, Monks completed a series of engravings for William Tilden’s book, The History of the Town of Medfield, Massachusetts 1651-1886. Monks was also commissioned to design the Seal for the Town of Medfield, which he completed in 1896.

    Monks Painting

    “Twilight” from painting by J. A. S. Monks published in “Wisdom” magazine, Volume 1, No. 5, July, 1902.
    Credit: Medfield Historical Society.

    Monks began to introduce sheep and other animals into his landscaping and little by little he became so interested in painting animals, especially sheep that he dropped the landscape and concentrated only on the sheep. Monks did not paint to please the public. He felt that art must offer entertainment and emotion; it must have a religious power over man and assist in perfecting his ethical side.

    Said Monks: “Do your best even if the world does not appreciate you. Be your own most severe critic, pass judgment upon yourself; if you are able to criticize yourself severely and place your standards high, the verdict of the world will come in due time, and it will be a just one, even though it may not be consistent with the opinions of prize committees and jury awards.”

    Monks was contacted by a well-known art dealer in New York who asked him to display his etchings. It was through this that Monks became well known all over the country. He became a specialist on painting sheep. He traveled throughout the northeast US and parts of Europe in search of sheep of different kinds to paint.

    In Vermont, he boarded as a hired hand with a farmer owning many sheep, in the Alps he spent many nights with the sheep herders in their huts, sleeping within touch of the sheep and he spent an entire summer on a sheep farm in northern Maine.

    Why did he concentrate on sheep? Early in our history, Americans seemed ashamed of our rural life that many from Europe thought backward. Few artists painted rural scenes. In New England, we were ashamed of our orchards and our old-fashioned houses and most of all our kitchens and stables.

    Our pigs were to be scorned and our chickens to be ignored. They were never painted. From the beginning, Monks did exactly what he wanted to do and that was to paint sheep.

    Monks died on March 14, 1917 of diabetes while staying at his daughter’s house in Chicago. He was cremated at Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery on March 17, 1917, and at a later date, was buried in Vine lake Cemetery, Lot 280 Grave 9, beside his wife Olive Betsey (Young) Monks, who died October 7, 1927 at an unknown location.

    Jack the Dog by Monks.

    The portrait of “Jack the Dog” by J. A. S. Monks hangs in the Medfield Historical Society.

    The Medfield Historical Society has many of Monks’ sheep etchings. Another special Monks painting that is in the Historical Society is of the dog “Jack.”

    Jack, presumed to be an American Staffordshire Terrier, was the faithful companion of Dr. Arthur Mitchell, who came to Medfield in 1887 at the age of 23 and served as Medfield’s beloved doctor for 48 years. During a storm of epic proportions, the young doctor fell into the floodwaters of a river, which we assume was the Charles. He was under the rapids and his lungs were filling with water when he saw, from the corner of his eyes, his faithful dog and companion, “Jack.” All he remembers was holding onto Jack for dear life and seeing the shore come closer and closer.

    Reaching the river bank, he was able to grab onto tree branches protruding into the water and pull himself up onto the bank with Jack still by his side. The event he never forgot; nor the fact that it was Jack, who dove into the river after him. His life had been saved by his dog. Mitchell commissioned Monks to paint Jack and had it hung in his doctor’s office. In Mitchell’s will, the painting was left to his housekeeper, Mrs. Mary C. Haskell. It was later donated to the Medfield Historical Society.

    ~Excerpted from an article by Richard DeSorgher published in Medfield Patch