Joseph H. Davis


Joseph H. Davis was one of numerous itinerant artists who created small, inexpensive portraits of New England citizens in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Until recently, Davis’s precise identity was in dispute. Many details of his biography remain shadowy, although he is known to have been left-handed. The distinctive formula of his likenesses, his practice of inscribing them with dates and sitters’ names, and considerable genealogical research have revealed the outlines of a brief career in which the artist created some 160 works in pencil and watercolor. Most are full-length profile portraits of a single, right-facing individual or of a husband and wife facing each other from either side of a table. Davis’s portraits are also distinctive for the boldly patterned and colored floors on which figures are placed, and for elaborate calligraphic inscriptions below. The latter clearly record the artist’s travels throughout the border region between Maine and New Hampshire in the years 1832 to 1838.

Known locally as “Pine Hill” Joe Davis for the location of his family’s farm in Limington, Maine, the artist was twenty-one when he painted his first portrait. He appears to have been a farmer who gained a local reputation for his habit of suddenly leaving his farm to wander from town to town making portraits on small pieces of paper, for which he is said to have charged $1.50 apiece. Family connections may have drawn him to some of his sitters; to others he was apparently connected by common membership in the Freewill Baptist Church then flourishing in southern Maine. In any case, Davis often painted numerous members of a single family, either in groups or individually, and his reputation undoubtedly spread by word of mouth among the often-related families of the rural region in which he traveled.

Davis married in 1835 and moved to Saco, Maine, but he remained active as an artist until about 1838. He may have ceased painting at that date because the birth of his daughter necessitated a more secure income. Thereafter, he was occupied in land speculation, manufacturing, and inventing. He lived successively in Saco and Newfield, Maine; Morristown, New Jersey; and Woburn, Massachusetts, where he died. Virtually unknown as a painter outside the region in which he worked, Davis was “rediscovered” a century later, when American collectors took up so-called folk art with enthusiasm; today, his works are highly prized.© and full ownership credit: Terra Foundation for American Art