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 Joseph Drayton  (1795 - 1856)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania      Known for: maritime expedition images, topographical, portrait paintings, engravings

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Engraver and portrait painter, Joseph Drayton traveled widely as an official artist with the Wilkes Expedition, the first official maritime exploration sponsored by the United States government.

Joseph Drayton began working as an engraver in Philadelphia as early as 1819 when his engraving of a Scottish landscape by Caroline Schetky was published in the Analectic Magazine. The following year, other engravings by Drayton appeared in the Analectic.

He stayed in Philadelphia until about 1838, when he took on the assignment with the five-year "Wilkes United States Exploring Expedition". These travels resulted in him being one of the most widely-traveled artists of that era, going from the farthest points South and North on the globe.

Commissioned by the United States Senate, the exploration was stimultated by the theories of an eccentric named John Symmes who claimed that the Earth was hollow and that entrances at each pole led to the interior of the earth. Symmes pressured the Senate to fund the search for those portals, which they called Symmes Hole. However, his promoter, Ohio journalist Jeremiah Reynolds, spotting a potentially fruitless search, lobbied instead for a major American Naval operation.

With three ships and supply vessels, and a commander, Charles Wilkes, described as a "vain and fractious New York aristocrat" (, they set sail southward in 1838. The purpose was to explore the Atlantic Ocean, pass through Cape Horn and along the coast of South America, Antarctica, the Sandwich Islands, the American Northwest, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, around the Cape of Good Hope and return to New York.

In contrast to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the earlier major predecessor to this exploration, the Wilkes Expedition was highly controversial and stimulated much ill will because of the demoralizing leadership of Wilkes. He flogged his men, mutiny nearly occurred, and when Fiji Islanders killed two of his men, he razed villages and killed eighty-seven people. One of the engravings of Joseph Drayton is titled Fiji Drummer and is in the Alfred Agate Collection.

In 1842 upon the conclusion of the expedition, Drayton may have gone to Washington to work on the illustrations for the Wilkes reports. He had contributed to a wealth of materials that have brought credit to the Wilkes Expedition as a major source of visual knowledge about the geological, botanical, zoological and anthropological aspects of the lands they had visited.

Sources include:
Groce & Wallace, The New York Historical Society's Dictionary of Artists in America

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

Joseph Drayton is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Painted in Latin America
Artists who painted Hawaii

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