John Wood Dodge, portraitist and photographer, was born in New York City, the son of a goldsmith and watchmaker and his Canadian-born wife. Dodge was apprenticed to a sign painter, under whom he began to copy, then paint, original miniatures. When his apprenticeship ended, he rented a studio. During the winter of 1826-27, he studied at the National Academy of Design. He exhibited there from 1830 to 1838, and was elected an associate member in 1832. His exhibition piece was a portrait of his cousin, Mary Louise Dodge, whom he had married on December 13, 1831.
Dodge's account book begins in 1828. His standard price for a miniature was $11.50. By 1831 it had risen to $25, and a few years later, with his increasing fame, reached $75. In 1838 he left for the South, primarily for health reasons, but also to find an area with fewer competitors. For the next two years, he spent most of the winters in Huntsville, Alabama. In May 1840 he arrived in Nashville, where he worked until 1861. He also made frequent trips to other southern cities to paint and exhibit his work.
In 1842 and 1843 Dodge did life portraits of Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. The pictures enjoyed an extensive sale in print form. In 1845 he bought a large orchard in Pomona, Tennessee. In order to pay for it, Dodge executed a series of large dioramas, which he exhibited with illumination at Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Louisville, New York, and Hartford. After 1850 Dodge spent more time at his “fruit ranch” in Pomona and worked in Nashville during the winters. Increasingly, photography impaired his business, and tinting photographs became an important part of his operation.
A Unionist, Dodge left Tennessee in 1861 and arrived in New York destitute. He did an ink drawing of George Washington which he intended as a correction of Gilbert Stuart's standard image; it sold reasonably well. In May 1865 he had a sitting from President Andrew Johnson, and the resulting portrait sold well in photographic form.
About 1869 Dodge moved to Chicago, where he produced mostly photographs, large oil portraits, and still lifes. In 1874-75 he was vice-president of the local academy. In 1889 he returned to Pomona, where he worked in various media until shortly before his death of pneumonia on December 15, 1893, at age eighty-six.