Of the sixty known paintings by Joseph Lee, all are San Francisco subjects and more than three-quarters of them are ship portraits of remarkable quality. Lee's portraits are of such accuracy, with every shroud, ratline and block exactly in place, that it is quite possible he worked directly from rigging plans. Old timers along the San Francisco waterfront used to say "you could rig a ship from one of Lee's pictures".
Although considered the foremost portraitist of Pacific Coast ships during the 1860s and ‘70s, details regarding the life of this important San Francisco marine artist remain a mystery. Lee's colorful works have a strong folk art appeal and he has often been considered as the "James Bard of the West".
Lee's paintings were frequently commissioned directly by the ship's master and were hung in his cabin. Upon restoration of many of the artist's works, layers of salt from many voyages required removal. Along with his contemporary William A. Coulter, Lee's painting are an important factor in creating an accurate record of the ships and places of the San Francisco Bay area in the late 19th Century.