National Society of Colonial Dames of
America in Tennessee

Continuation of Artists Represented in this Collection

John Wood Dodge, cont.

Dodge's miniatures are in the larger size, they tend to have the bolder coloring, and his normal background is relatively dark. However, the pink cloud background that he sometimes used has a delicacy that would have pleased an eighteenth-century miniaturist. His work was almost always meant to have the quality of a personal token, rather than that of an object for public display.

Dodge practiced successfully in New York City until the late 1830s, when his health appeared to be deteriorating and his doctor gave him the common prescription of moving to the South. In 1838 Dodge traveled to Huntsville, Alabama, where, after a somewhat slow start, he had a successful season of painting.  After the season he returned to New York, but was back in Huntsville the next year. One of the portraits he painted during that trip was of a handsome young man named David Peter Lewis who paid seventy-five dollars for the portrait.

Although business had been good in Huntsville, Dodge concluded there was no long-term future there because the city was too small.  By May 1840 he had moved to Nashville, and from the beginning he enjoyed a successful stay in Tennessee. Nashville newspapers not only carried advertisements announcing his arrival, but also published articles praising his work and recommending him highly.  Perhaps his most remarkable client was the estate of Robert Woods, a prominent and wealthy Nashville banker. Woods left instructions in his will that twenty-four miniatures of him  be painted--one for each of his twenty-four nieces--and Dodge got the contract.  It took him about six months to do the work, and he charged $940 for the pictures without cases.

Dodge became prosperous enough to purchase five thousand acres a few miles west of Crossville near present-day Pomona in Cumberland County, Tennessee, where he established a huge orchard that is said to have consisted of eighty-two thousand apple trees.  The Pomona Fruit Ranch soon became the principal residence of the Dodges and five of their children. Dodge's brother William and his family also moved to Pomona.

In order to pay for the plateau property, Dodge had to keep painting. Entries in his account book show that he could turn out a miniature in three days of concentrated effort. Occasionally he painted miniatures for barter, such as the portrait of Arena P. Whitlock  the young wife of Robert E. Whitlock (b. 1815), which Dodge painted in lieu of rent for his painting room in Nashville. Dodge's prices were high--$50 to $100 was his normal price range--and some miniatures cost as much as $250. Many of Dodge's subjects were prominent, and nearly all were wealthy. To increase his income, Dodge had engravings made of some of his portrait miniatures and sold them nationwide. His most popular engraved portraits were of Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay (1777-1852), both of whom said they were very pleased with Dodge's likenesses.

Even with his many commissions in Middle Tennessee, Dodge regularly traveled to other cities in search of clients. He is known to have worked in Natchez, Mississippi (December 1848-April 1850), Saint Louis (June 1854-November 1855), Harrodsburg Springs (now Harrodsburg), Kentucky (July 1841), Lexington (June 1843 and September 9-November 9, 1843), New Orleans (February 19-May 19, 1848), Louisville (July 15-September 25, 1848), Memphis (December 17, 1847-February 1848), and New York City (November 9, 1842-March 11, 1843, July 1843, and January 22, 1844-early November 1844).

A number of Dodge's miniatures are posthumous likenesses. They were particularly in demand from parents when a child died. The posthumous portraits include that of Mary Eliza Washington  who was the seven-year-old daughter of the Nashville banker Thomas Washington. This portrait is a fine example of Dodge's pink cloud background, while his memorial of Felix Grundy Eakin shows the boy in an architectural setting surrounded by an array of the symbols of death: broken toys, wilted flowers, and an empty urn.

On December 15, 1893, Dodge died of pneumonia at the age of eighty-six. He and other members of his family are buried in a neat row at the crest of a hill in Oaklawn Cemetery in Pomona, for which he had given the land to the community some forty years earlier. Dodge's modest headstone gives no hint that an accomplished American artist lies buried there.

Even though he turned his hand to almost every type of art except history painting and landscape, Dodge was one of the few portrait miniature painters who by dint of high quality maintained a clientele for miniatures long after the photograph had replaced the portrait miniature as a memento.

excerpted from Magazine Antiques,  Nov, 2003