John Wood Dodge displayed an early talent for drawing, and when he was about sixteen years old he was apprenticed to a sign painter. Eager to pursue what he later described as "some higher branch of art," Dodge borrowed some miniatures from a friend and began to copy them. When his apprenticeship ended, he set up his own studio and began his professional career as a miniature painter.
Although he had no formal art training, Dodge practiced drawing from casts and statuary at the school of the National Academy of Design in the winter of 1826–27. In 1830, and regularly through 1838, his work was exhibited at the Academy. In 1838 Dodge left New York and headed south, where he hoped to find more work and less expensive living. After a brief stay in Alabama, he settled in Nashville, Tennessee, for the next twenty-one years. The rent on his studio was often paid by painting miniatures for his landlords, but Dodge also executed portraits of prominent statesmen and local citizens. Among these was Andrew Jackson, whom he painted in 1842. Dodge considered it, as he stated, "the most correct and perfect picture I ever painted." An engraving based on this miniature was produced and sold well, lauded by the New York Plebian, which stated, "No Democrat should be without this portrait in his house."
In 1845 Dodge bought 150 acres of land in the Cumberland Mountains about 150 miles from Nashville, where he built a log house and developed an apple orchard. To pay the bills he embarked on several ambitious painting projects, including the execution of dioramas. By 1850, the invention of photograph had put a dent in the market for miniature paintings. Dodge complained in an article he published in 1840, "Painting and Daguerreotype," that the new medium had several drawbacks, such as its lack of color and the glare on the images. However, he faced reality in the 1850s and began to take photographs himself.
In 1861, Dodge's loyalty to the Union led him to leave Tennessee when the people of his adopted state voted to secede. He returned to New York City destitute and, with miniature painting in decline, made his living largely as a photographer. However, he continued to paint, and in 1865 executed a portrait of President Andrew Johnson, copies of which were sold in photographic form. With his financial situation precarious, Dodge moved to Chicago, where he lived from 1870 to 1888. He served as vice president of the Chicago Academy of Design in 1874–75. In 1889 Dodge returned to his homestead in Tennessee, where he continued to paint miniatures and landscapes until his death in 1893.
National Museum of American Art (CD-ROM) (New York and Washington D.C.: MacMillan Digital in cooperation with the National Museum of American Art, 1996)