Friday, October 5, 2012
Joseph H. Davis was a terrific folk portrait painter in miniature, but only one fact is known about him. Despite a body of work that includes more than one hundred and sixty exquisite watercolor portraits of southern New Hampshire and Maine residents, there are no vital records, advertisements, or directory listings that attest to his life and career. Various theories abound, including the notion that he was the legendary "Pine Hill Joe" of Newfield, Maine, a man remembered as a farmer and incurable wanderer who was always dabbling with paints and earned only $1.50 for each portrait rendered.
We have three portraits by Davis, and this one is the best. It depicts Azariah and Eliza Caverly of Strafford, New Hampshire along with their two children, George and Sarah. Azariah was a farmer who also must have experimented with architectural drawing, as evidenced by the detailed drawing on his table and the carpenter's square held by his son. The Caverly family genealogy describes Azaraiah as a man "full of aspirations; ingenious and frugal." Ingenious, maybe, as a farmer who also designed buildings. Frugal? Judging by the lavishly decorated chairs, lively patterned carpet, and garlanded painting, I have to wonder.
Anyway, that one fact about Davis that is known? On one of his paintings, an 1830s portrait of Bartholomew Van Dame, Davis signed his name "Joseph h. Davis/Left Hand Painter." How interesting that this survives as his sole identifier. Given the prevailing attitudes toward left-handers in the early 19th century (left-handedness was "corrected" well into the 20th century), he might as well have painted with his feet. The signature certainly suggests that being left-handed was a big part of Davis' identity, and he wanted at least one sitter to know it. For good measure, he also added a lot of flourish to the inscriptions along the bottom of his portraits. Yes, left-handers could write as beautifully as anyone. I know this first-hand, being left-handed myself.
For more images of Davis' work, see the following post from the wonderful "It's About Time" blog.
Paul S. D'Ambrosio
Left Hand President