May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017

Sylvanus C. Foss and Mary Jane Foss

Joseph H. Davis (active 1832-1837) Improvement

Probably Strafford, New Hampshire


Watercolor, pencil, and ink on paper

10 3/4 x 15" (sight)

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2013.1.14

Photo © John Bigelow Taylor, New York

Sylvanus C. Foss and Mary Jane Foss

The complacency of middle-class Americans in the age of improvement is brilliantly captured by the artist Joseph H. Davis, who worked primarily in Maine and New Hampshire. Many of his sitters were members of the Freewill Baptist Church, a religious affiliation that is sometimes indicated by the presence of such attributes as the church’s newspaper, the Morning Star. The northern branch of the Freewill Baptists was founded in New Durham, New Hampshire; Davis drew siblings Sylvanus and Mary Foss in nearby Strafford. The achievements of each are indicated through elements included in their portrait, Sylvanus the scholar and Mary Jane’s musical proficiency. The material comfort of their lives is communicated through beautiful fancy furniture: the grain-painted table and the blue klismos chairs standing on a gaily colored carpet or floor cloth. Davis presents a similar picture of perfect equanimity in the many watercolors he painted between 1832 and 1837. The sitters, many of whom were related by marriage or proximity, are not distinguished by the perspicacity with which Davis limned their features. On the contrary, there is little individualization. Rather, Davis created a picture of community and cultural refinement through symmetrical arrangements of persons united by their comfortable and colorful homes, fine clothes, and tasteful art.

Many of the drawings feature a finely calligraphed legend naming the sitters, date, and place; sometimes Davis included his own name and described himself as a “Left Hand Painter.” Identifying the artist has proved to be difficult; he may be the Joseph Davis (1811–1865) who was born in Limington, Maine, and died in Woburn, Massachusetts.

Stacy C. Hollander, “Sylvanus C. Foss and Mary Jane Foss,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.