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 Joseph Anderson Faris  (1833 - 1909)

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Lived/Active: Ohio/West Virginia      Known for: naive portrait, animal, landscape

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following information was submitted on December of 2006 by Ken Ramage:

Joseph Anderson Faris was born Mar. 18, 1833, in St. Clairsville, OH.  His father, William, was born in Baltimore, MD, a son of William and Ann Biddle Faris, both of that city.  In 1813 his father married Nancy Fisher, who was born near Taylorstown, Washington Co., PA.  She was the daughter of Irish immigrants James and Mary Fisher.

After their marriage, William and Nancy Faris settled in St. Clairsville and were among early pioneers of that section of Belmont County. William established himself in the cabinetmaking trade, and it was here that his children were raised and educated. 

Joseph spent the early years of his life attending local schools.  By the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed to his father, learning the trade of cabinetmaking.

Sidney Janis, in the preface to They Taught Themselves; American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century suggests that before painting, self-taught artists ” go through a series of rudimentary unconsummated painting gestures ... often related to their crafts . . . which help to mature them.” He names, among others, cabinetmakers, as those ”who are naturally led into painting as an extension of already developed motor activity.”  Interestingly, as essentially self-taught artist, Faris has such a background, and frequently many aspects of his work draw directly from his occupational activities.  Having become familiarized with the cabinetmaking trade, Joseph, at the age of 18, took up marblecutting.  In pursuing this line of work, he came to Wheeling, where he met Mary Elizabeth Pratt.  On Dec. 20, 1855, they were married.  She was the daughter of Robert Pratt, of Wheeling, and Phebe Green Pratt, from England.

In 1856 Faris was employed as a marblecutter by the R. N. Evans & Co., marble works.  By March of 1857 he began operation of his own marble works, as noted in the Intelligencer, Mar. 2, 1857.  ”[Faris] has fixed up a neat little shop . . . where he is now prepared to receive orders in his line, and exhibit specimens of his workmanship.  Mr. F. is an excellent practical workman, and as he will work at and superintend personally the execution of all work entrusted to him, he cannot fail to give satisfaction to those who may favor him with employment.”

Upon the death of Dr. S. P. Hullihen, oral surgeon and prominent Wheeling citizen, Faris was commissioned by a committee representing the medical profession, the city council, and the Wheeling Hospital Assn., to ”erect a suitable monument for the deceased in testimony of [their] respect for his memory.”  He completed the twenty- three foot monument in Nov. 1857.  It was declared ”a splendid piece of workmanship ... [which did] great honor to Mr. Faris.” The Hullihen monument still stands in Mt. Wood Cemetery, and bears the following inscription: ”Erected by the citizens of Wheeling to the memory of one, who had so lived among them, that they mourned his death as a public calamity.”

Faris continued to enjoy a good reputation as a marblecutter, and on July 14, 1857, his first child, a daughter, Anna E., was born.  His work continued to achieve public acknowledgment, as in Sept. 1858 his wares earned him a premium at the Washington Co., PA Fair. His business continued to prosper, and in 1859, he was acting as agent for the Cleveland, OH based Marble Co. of Irwin and Bonham. In Feb. 1860, a son, Robert W., was born.

When the call came for troops at the outbreak of the Civil War, Faris enlisted as a private in Company K, Sixth WV Volunteer Infantry, on Oct. 1., 1861. Leaving the marble works under the supervision of his brother, Samuel , he began his military career.

As a handicraftsman, Faris was now separated from his trade.  Having a natural tendency towards artistic expression, he found an outlet in the opportunity for reportage and genre sketching presented by the Civil War. Harper’s Weekly published Faris’s 1861 sketch ”Wheeling Virginia, showing the Suspension Bridge, and the Embarkation of the German Rifles, Captain Plankey.” Probably other works by Faris were published during the years of the Civil War.

On the 2nd day of his service, Faris was promoted to first lieutenant, a rank he held for one year.  The regiment in which he served was recruited for the purpose of guarding the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which was called the Union’s ”lifeline” from the East to the West.  With the resignation of Joseph Reece as Captain of Company K, Faris was commissioned to that position on Nov. 1, 1862.  Faris distinguished himself in that rank for his role in what was to become known as ”McNeill’s Raid,” in May 1862.

Faris was mustered out at Oakland, MD on Nov. 17, 1864, having served 3 yr., 1 month, and 24 days. Following his discharge, Faris accepted the superintendency of the Dutchman’s Run Oil Company, in New York City.  He held this position for 1 1/2 years.  One of his brothers  had established himself as a photographer in New York City, and following his stint at Dutchman’s Run Oil, Faris managed the photo gallery while his brother traveled the West Indies for a year.

The period of time spent in New York City was the turning point in Faris’s career as an artist.  When he returned to Wheeling, he devoted himself to art, becoming a portrait painter by profession.  One can only speculate as to the reason for this decision.  He probably received art lessons in New York City.  Interestingly, Winslow Homer, who had been contracted as a sketch artist by Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War, had taken up residence there in the years immediately following.  Perhaps he made contacts in artistic circles through his association with his brother’s art gallery.

Faris returned to Wheeling in a new age of development in industry.  According to Janis, ”handicraftsmen, whose skills led them naturally into aesthetic expression were now separated from their crafts by the machine, and these handskills went into disuse.”

As during the Civil War, Faris again adapted his need for artistic expression to his environment.  Faris knew first hand from his experience in his brother’s photography shop that with the growing popularity of the camera, the portrait painter would soon be obsolete in larger, metropolitan areas.  In returning to Wheeling, Faris was fortunate to find an environment in which he was surrounded by profuse art activity.  Washington Hall was the site of a steady stream of exhibits, both national and local.  While on week’s engagement might be Hiram Power’s Greek Slave, the next might find the watercolors of Pittsburgh artist Paul Nefflen.  In the Wheeling City Directory dated 1875, there were 4 advertising artists to a population of 30,000.  By 1888, the number of advertising artists in Wheeling had grown to 12, while the population remained near 35,000 people .

Faris advertised himself as primarily a portraitist, but did still life, genre, and landscape painting as well.  More pleasing than powerful, such works were popular with the public, exhibiting a type of ”Currier and Ives appeal,” and would have sold well between portrait commissions.

The next several years were ones of emotional hardship for the Faris family.  It was during these trying years that Faris advertised himself most aggressively, striving to make a name for himself as an artist.  In Sheppard’s Wheeling Directory 18751876, Faris purchased a ”cor card,” which was a series of approximately 120 small boxed advertisements found on alternate pages.

Portrait Painter,
No. 1204 McLure House Block
Residence 1308 Jacob Street

In the business listings he could be found under ”Artists,” and he created a new heading of ”Portrait Painter,” under which he was the only listing.  In Callin’s Wheeling City Directory, 1878 Supplement, he took out a half page advertisement, as well as a professional card on the outside back cover:

Portraits in Oil, Crayon, and Pastel,
Studio, 1222 Market St
All kinds of old Pictures copied and Enlarged, no matter how much they may be defaced. Old pictures of every kind cleaned and restored.   
During the following 10 years, Faris was active in public and social life, as well as professionally.  He was a member of the Presbyterian Church, and a comrade of the Grand Army of the Republic, Holiday Post No. 12, of which he was commander for a time.  In 1884 he provided Harper’s Weekly with the pictorial coverage of the Wheeling flood.  In 1887, Faris was elected a republican member of the first branch of Wheeling City Council.

On April 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Faris to the office of Surveyor of Customs of the Port of Wheeling.  The label ”Port of Entry” was an official congressional designation given to Wheeling because of its importance as a distribution center for goods carried up and down the Ohio River.  The river had always played an important role in the development of Wheeling, and with the introduction of the steamboat, the city experienced a regeneration of development and a level of prosperity which it has yet to equal.  It was at this time that Faris was appointed to the prestigious position which oversaw all water trade and shipping through the city of Wheeling.

The impact the river had on the life of Faris carries over into his art, much of which depicts both the industrial and recreational aspects of the river.  In doing this his work bears the stamp of Wheeling from this time.  This is revealed not only in telltale details, such as the fashions in clothing, but also through the attitude of mind which inevitably came to Faris from the larger environment as well as from the commonplace experiences of his daily life.

In 1893, Fort Henry 1772, The Last Battle of the Revolution, painted 1882, was exhibited in the West Virginia house at the Columbian Exposition at Chicago.  He probably attended and was exposed to a variety of schools and artists, both American and foreign, and was able to absorb their influence.  This would account for his ability as a self-taught artist to produce a wide variety of styles, that at one time appeals to the heart with its pleasing awkwardness and humble spirit, and at another captures the eye and mind with its crisp execution and painstaking attention to detail.

Faris spent a full life in service to his community and his country.  He died Nov. 23, 1909 at the age of 77.  Throughout his life of diverse undertakings Faris remained faithful to, and actively involved in his chosen profession as an artist.

Masters degree project in Art History at West Virginia University by Christin Louise Stein, now deceased.

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