DAVIS, JOSEPH H.
was a portrait painter who worked in southwestern Maine and southeastern New Hampshire during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. A prolific artist, Davisexecuted more than 150 known portraits in watercolor on paper over a period of five years. Information pertaining to his identity has been gleaned primarily fromelaborate calligraphic inscriptions that he included along the bottom borders of his portraits, recording sitters’ names and ages at the time their likenesses were painted.By linking genealogical information regarding these clients with their place of origin, Davis’s perambulations can be traced. Only a few of these works bear the artist’ssignature; the signature on the portrait of Bartholomew Van Dame confirms that the artist was a left-handed painter. Davis used a variety of formulaic compositions to represent his subjects in watercolor. Husbands and wives as well as siblings are often posed together, either on thesame sheet of paper or facing each other on separate pages, seated or standing, their faces in profile with bodies turned slightly, to almost three-quarter view. Portrayedin parlor settings, men, women, and children are surrounded by attributes of their middle-class status. They hold books, read newspapers, or write letters with quill pens, and they sometimes play music, among other activities. Davis depicted interiors decorated with painted tables and chairs, complemented by pictorial landscapeviews festooned with swags of garlands, fruit and flower arrangements, and ornate carpets. In one such portrait of
the sitter is depicted at his writingdesk, perhaps in a study, dress in a fine black suit with red trim, tails, and decorative shoes and stockings. A map on the wall as well as period furniture would seem toindicate Mr. Demeritt’s relative wealth and cultural status.Davis often included family pets, posed as if they too knew their likenesses were being recorded for posterity. Davis also drew sitters posed outdoors, where children, in particular, are engaged in leisure activities, such as picking flowers, or are holding articles associated with horseback riding, kite flying, or birdhunting, among other interests.Several individuals have attempted to identify the person known as Joseph H.Davis, a search complicated by the artist’s relatively common name. Most recently,researchers Arthur and Sybil Kern have posited an association between Davis’s portrait subjects and the Freewill Baptist Church in New Hampshire and Maine. Theyhave also proposed that the artist may be the same Joseph H.Davis who was born on August 10, 1811, to Joseph and Phebe Small Davis of Limington, Maine.
Ralph Esmerian; Fraternal Societies;
Freemasonry; Painting, American Folk
Kern, Arthur, and Sybil. “Joseph H.Davis: Identity Established.”
vol. 14, no. 3 (summer 1989): 48–50.Savage, Gail, Norbert H.Savage, and Ester Sparks.
Three New England Watercolor Painters.
Chicago, 1974.Spinney, Frank O. “Joseph H.Davis, New Hampshire Artist of the 1830s.”
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vol. 44 (October 1943): 177–180