James Hamilton was one of America’s first marine painters, celebrated for his striking harbor views and sailing scenes. Inspired by the work of J.M.W. Turner, Hamilton cultivated a dramatic repertoire of naval battles, storms, and shipwrecks, punctuated by bursts of brilliant color and blazing light. His Romantic work earned him a reputation as “the American Turner” and popularized seascapes for American artists and audiences.
Originally from Belfast, Ireland, Hamilton moved to the United States with his family at the age of fifteen and established his career in Philadelphia. Supported by a wealthy patron and encouraged by local artists, he attended drawing school and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He became one of the city’s best-known artists before relocating to San Francisco in 1875.
Hamilton was a frequent exhibitor at the Pennsylvania Academy and the Artists’ Fund Society and had works selected for the National Academy of Design, the San Francisco Art Association, the Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco, and the 1881 California State Fair. His dramatic style made him a popular illustrator as well as painter, and he was selected to illustrate several notable exploration memoirs: John Frost’s Pictorial History of the American Navy, John C. Fremont’s Memoirs, and Elisha Kent Kane’s Arctic Explorations. Hamilton also gained recognition as an art instructor, drawing students such as Edward and Thomas Moran to his Philadelphia studio. The Brooklyn Museum of Art held a retrospective of Hamilton’s work in 1966; his paintings are also included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Tate Gallery in London.