James Hamilton

American, 1819 - 1878
James Hamilton was among an influential group of American luminist painters who flourished in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Hamilton was primarily a painter of seascapes and was famous in his lifetime for translating onto canvas sketches by Dr. Elisha Kane taken on Grinnell’s arctic expeditions. Used as illustrations for the published accounts of the expeditions, Hamilton’s paintings were widely admired.

Born in 1819 near Belfast Ireland, Hamilton moved with his family to Philadelphia at the age of 15. There he pursued his study of art with the encouragement of the prominent engraver John Sartain and by 1840 had begun to exhibit his works, quickly gaining recognition for his seascapes. He traveled extensively in the neighboring states of New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, painting the beaches, coastlines, rivers and marshes. Hamilton moved with his wife and children to San Francisco around 1876 where he died two years later.
Seascape painter James Hamilton was born in Ireland in 1819 of Scottish parentage. At age 15, he came to the United States and trained as an illustrator for books and magazines, including Blackwood's Magazine in Philadelphia. He attended drawing school and later studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he gained additional skill in engraving and etching.

Hamilton particularly admired the work of J.M.W. Turner and Samuel Prout. Hamilton was often called "the American Turner" because of his vivid lighting effects in coastal scenes and seascapes. His favorite subjects were scenes of storm or bombardment.

"What Are the Wild Waves Saying?" (1859, Brooklyn Museum) shows the loose brushwork often associated with Turner. Because this painting was inspired by a chapter heading in Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son, Hamilton presented Dickens with the painting when the author visited the United States in 1868"the only gift, Dickens said, that he accepted while in America.

Hamilton's seascapes, many painted along the New Jersey coast, sometimes showed the passions of nature, sometimes those of men. The Bombardment of Fort Mifflin (date and location unknown) contrasts a level sea with leaping flames around ships and straining men in a boat.

Hamilton was perhaps best known for his illustrations in Arctic Explorations, a book by Elisha Kent Kane. Other well known paintings include An Egyptian Sunset, The Capture of the Serapis and A Moonlight Scene near Venice (dates and locations unknown). Perhaps looking for a real-life adventure to match his paintings, Hamilton embarked on a trip around the world"but died in San Francisco in 1878 without completing it.

Public Collections:
Atwater Kent Museum, Philadelphia
Free Library of Philadelphia
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
Philadelphia Maritime Museum
Pennsylvania Historical Society, Philadelphia

Biography courtesy of Roughton Galleries, www.antiquesandfineart.com/roughton
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