Born in England, Joseph Lee rose to prominence in San Francisco, California, in the 1860s and 1870s as a marine and landscape painter. The first recorded appearance of Lee’s work was in 1858, when he was awarded a prize for a painted tin sign at the Second Industrial Exhibition of the Mechanics’ Institute of the City of San Francisco, indicating that his training came from sign painting. He must have turned to painting on canvas soon afterward, and by the later 1860s had made highly accurate ship portraits his specialty.
Lee was first listed as an artist in the San Francisco city directory in 1872. He worked variously around the Bay Area, painting sites in San Francisco, Oakland, and Alameda. His work is characterized by an almost obsessively fastidious attention to the smallest of realistic details, which suited him best for his ship portraits. Indeed, it is said that seamen along San Francisco’s waterfront used to say “you could rig a ship from one of Lee’s pictures.