Joseph Badger


Joseph Badger, the son of a tailor, was born in 1708 in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He married Katharine Felch in 1731; they moved about two years later to nearby Boston, where Badger, apparently self-taught, spent his entire painting career. He began as a house painter, glazier, and painter of signs and heraldic devices. His earliest portraits date from about 1740. His known work numbers around one hundred and fifty portraits. He was particularly successful in the late 1740’s and early 1750’s, after the retirement of John Smibert. Some of his compositions show the direct influence of Smibert, whose color shop was near Badger’s home. His conservative style was eclipsed in the mid 1750’s by the work of two younger artists, Joseph Blackburn and John Singleton Copley. Badger died in Boston in 1765.

Born Charlestown, Mass., March 14, 1707/8. Died Boston, May 11, 1765.

Joseph Badger began his career as a house painter-glazier and expanded his business to include portraiture. He was a Boston artist who made portraits of subjects in such nearby towns as Brookline, Charlestown, and Milton. How he learned to paint remains a matter of speculation, although several art historians have suggested John Smibert as an early influence and John Singleton Copley as a late one. Badger’s consistent use of an underpainting supports the theory that he received some training; those same cool, preliminary tones are now visible through abraded paint layers and have led some commentators to pronounce his subjects “wraithlike.” At least 150 portraits are either extant or known to have been executed between 1743 and 1765. Badger has been described as a folk painter and an artisan painter, designations that suggest both his limitations as an artist and his natural abilities. His small repertoire of poses and formats facilitated the identification of his uniformly unsigned canvases. Like other eighteenth-century American painters, ranging from anonymous overmantel artists to the fashionable Copley, Joseph Badger depended upon imported English prints as sources for his compositions. More than one-third of his surviving paintings depict children, who are often represented with a pet bird, squirrel, or dog or, in the case of toddlers, holding a rattle. His portraits were created in a distinctive linear style, often with awkward proportions and little modeling. Despite these limitations, Badger was able to achieve specific likenesses of his sitters.1

Badger was born on March 14, 1707/8 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the sixth of nine children of Mercy Kettell and Stephen Badger, a tailor. On June 2, 1731, Joseph married Katharine Felch in Cambridge, and the couple had between six and nine children.2 At least two of the Badgers’ sons, Joseph and William, became painters and glaziers like their father. (Moving to Charleston, South Carolina, shortly after their father’s death in 1765, the brothers announced that they had “just arrived from Boston, in New-England, and propose to carry on their business of painting and glazing in all their branches.”)3 Another artist in the Badger family was Daniel, perhaps one of Joseph’s brothers,who moved to Charleston about 1735 and advertised that he “undertakes and compleats all sorts of House and Ship paintings.”4

The young Badger family moved to Boston about 1733, settling in the neighborhood of Brattle Street and attending the Brattle Square Church, where four of Joseph and Katharine’s children were baptized. Joseph’s patrons included the colleague pastor of the church, the Reverend William Cooper (about 1743, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston) and a number of parishioners, including John Larrabee.5

The Brattle Street (now Franklin Street) neighborhood was home to several painters and other artisans, including John Singleton Copley, John Greenwood, Peter Pelham, and John Smibert. The Scottish-born Smibert (1688–1751) emigrated from London in 1728 and introduced the baroque Lely-Kneller portrait tradition to the northern colonies. He established a studio in Boston on Queen Street (now Court Street), a block from the church where the Badger children were baptized. Smibert also ran a shop that would have given Badger access to “all Sorts of Colours, dry or ground, with Oils and Brushes, Fans of several Sorts, the best Mezzotinto. Italian, French, Dutch and English Prints, in Frames and Glasses, or without, by Wholesale or Retail at reasonable Rates.”6

Whether Badger received instruction from Smibert cannot be determined, although his work does reflect knowledge of the British artist’s paintings. Smibert’s shop also may have provided the English prints that served as sources for Badger’s portraits. The importance of prints to Badger’s development as an artist is widely evident. For instance, Thomas Cushing (about 1745, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts) and Cornelius (1750) and Faith Waldo (about 1750) are alike depicted in high-backed chairs in poses borrowed from an English mezzotint of Sir Isaac Newton by John Faber (1725, after John Vanderbank). Smibert, too, used this print as a source for his portrait of Daniel Oliver (1732, private collection).7 Smibert’s failing eyesight and health in the mid-1740s and his death in 1751 left a gap in the Boston portrait market that Badger filled until the arrival of Joseph Blackburn in 1755 and the emergence of Copley as an artistic force shortly thereafter. Badger continued to paint during the last decade of his life.

Also in the Brattle Street neighborhood was Thomas Johnston (1708–1767), a versatile artist who painted portraits and coats of arms; japanned and painted furniture; engraved maps, music, bookplates, and clock faces; and cut gravestones. Johnston lived on Ann Street, east of Brattle Square.8 He trained John Greenwood (1727–1792), who was his apprentice from 1741 to 1745. Johnston was active in the Brattle Square Church, so it is very likely that the two knew each other. Like Smibert, Johnston sold artists’ materials. Indeed, the extant account books of Daniel Rea I, later Johnston’s business partner, identify Badger as a customer in 1751 and 1752. He was credited for a picture and for decorating buckets, items that were then probably resold to a third party, and he was charged for a hat and sundries.9

American Art Gallery Bio
Early American Paintings, Worcester Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art

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