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. Joseph H Davis was a man with a formula that seemed to work for him, just as it works for us in the 21st century who are interested in the details of the parlor & furniture & carpets & wall hangings & tablescapes & fashion & & daily reading habits in the 19th century. And we know a few details of the artist himself, such as Davis was left-handed.
The distinctive formula of his likenesses, his practice of inscribing them with dates & his sitters’ names, & items from the sitters' lives were consistant throughout his brief career in which the artist created some 160 works in pencil, pen, & watercolor.
He appears to have been from a farm family. Apparently, at an early age, he would suddenly leave the family 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.
Known in his local community as “Pine Hill” Joe Davis for the location of his family’s farm in Limington, Maine, the artist was 21, when he painted his 1st portrait.
Because quills, ink pots, & writing materials appear in so many of his paintings, some speculate that he may have been a traveling handwriting teacher. He used his own fine script to record pertinent information about his sitters at the bottom of most of his portraits.
Family connections may have drawn him to some of his sitters. Some of his other subjects seem to be connected by common membership in the Freewill Baptist Church then flourishing in southern Maine.
Davis's subjects included the families of diverse professions and means - families of military officers, farmers, lawyers, schoolmasters, and clergymen.
In his small scale works on paper, Davis posed subjects in profile, seated, or standing, in lavish interior scenes decorated with grained & painted furniture & boldly patterned carpets.
These proper New England husbands & wives are stiffly posed, as they gaze into each other's eyes, while their children are held or gather by them.
Davis surrounded his subjects with artifacts important in their lives - family Bibles, bowls of fruit, paintings on the walls, & family pets.
Davis often placed these refinements of a middle-class society on the tables, including top hats, books, vases of flowers, potted plants, quill pens with inkstands & writing paper, books, and newspapers.
Elaborately ornamented ink inscriptions usually appear along the bottom borders of Davis's portraits recording information about the subjects such as their names, birthdates, & precise ages at the time the portraits were completed.
The information Davis includes in his portraits clearly records the artist’s travels throughout the border region between Maine & New Hampshire in the years 1832 to 1838.
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.
After 1838, Davis earned his living through land speculation, manufacturing, & inventing. The family lived successively in Saco & Newfield, Maine; Morristown, New Jersey; & Woburn, Massachusetts, where he died.