American, active 1832/1837
Joseph H. Davis' bright watercolor portraits capture the comfortable lives of nineteenth-century New England citizens. Between 1832 and 1837, this artist worked in the vicinity of Dover, New Hampshire, and nearby communities in Maine. About 150 of his portraits survive, many in the homes of his sitters' descendants.
Davis often painted members of entire families, but he is best known for his double portraits of married couples. Seated calmly facing each other, these husbands and wives were portrayed with items that announced their status and good fortune. Books, especially the Bible, indicated refinement and education. Fine shoes, top hats, and ladies' bonnets spoke of respectability. Clues to a person's profession, or a newspaper associated with certain political views, were sometimes included.
Davis loved lively, decorative patterns. Bold designs, like those on the carpet, table, and apron in the painting of John and Abigail Montgomery, made his portraits unique. Bowls of fruit and paintings surrounded with greenery were other hallmarks of his work.
Little is known about Davis' own life before and after his brief career. On one portrait, he identified himself as a "left-handed painter." Some scholars have wondered if he was also a traveling handwriting teacher because of the quills, ink pots, and writing materials that appear as props in so many of his paintings. He used his own fine script to record sitters' names and ages at the bottom of his portraits.
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion program to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art. Produced by the Department of Education Resources, this teaching resource is one of the Gallery's free-loan educational programs.]