Justus DaLee was a portrait painter active in the mid-nineteenth century, from approximately 1830 to 1848. The DaLee family, most notably his brother Richard Waterman Moffitt DaLee, and son, Amon Gilbert Justus DaLee, were all also portrait painters and many of the paintings attributed to Justus DaLee are collaborative works between family members. Amon in particular would travel with his father, and would often finish the clothing in his father's portraits. Eventually, Amon would begin to paint on his own. As more artworks, some signed, were discovered. and extensive genealogical research was done, differences in style between family members have been noted.
DaLee was born into a Baptist community in Pittsfield, New York in 1793. Justus was the first of thirteen children, and the DaLee family moved often, eventually settling in Cambridge, New York. Before beginning his career as a portrait painter around 1830, he was a musician in the army during the War of 1812, a teacher, a (self described) "professor of penmanship," clerk in his Baptist church, and a farmer. He married Mary Fowler in 1816, and their first child was born in 1817. In total they had ten children. By 1830, Justus and his eldest surviving son Amon began to travel around neighboring New York towns, painting portraits to support his family. By 1837, Justus' brother Richard was also involved in the family business.
Much of what is known about these years comes from the letters in this collection, written among the DaLee family about life on the road. The DaLees traveled to Pittsburgh and Cleveland, as well as all over New York State, and wrote about their travels, those they met on the road and those they painted portraits of, and discussed their plans for the future.
By 1845, life as itinerant artists was becoming too challenging for Justus and Amon, and their letters begin to describe plans to open a medicine business and grocery. In 1848, Justus, Richard, and Amon were all living in Buffalo. The 1848 Commercial Advertiser lists all three DaLees as portrait painters, but also lists Justus and Amon as grocers, and in 1850, Justus is listed in the census as a teacher living in Portland, New York.
In 1856, Justus DaLee applied for a piece of land to homestead in the Midwest, based on his twenty-day military service. This amount was just over the fifteen-day enlistment minimum required, and DaLee was given 160 acres in Lawrence, Kansas. This land was later homesteaded by Amon, after he spent some time in San Francisco, learning the daguerreotype trade. By the time of the 1870 census, Justus was living with his daughter in Wisconsin, and is listed as blind. On January 5, 1878, Justus passed away, and was buried in the Odekirk family cemetery in Wisconsin.