James Wells Champney

Artist Biography

James Wells Champney is known for his genre paintings of rural scenes and country home life, as well as his studies of European masterpieces and stunning pastel portraits. Throughout his life, Champney worked as a lecturer, illustrator, watercolorist, and photographer, and was one of the first American artists to incorporate Impressionism into his work. His career was marked by extensive travel, and distinguished by his success at the Paris Salon as well as his popularity among the American elite [1].

Born in Boston, Massachusetts on July 16, 1843, Champney was the son of American portraitist and landscape painter Benjamin Champney (1817–1907). Champney studied drawing at the Lowell Institute, and took anatomy courses under Oliver Wendell Holmes. At the age of 16, he was apprenticed to a wood engraver, but left to serve in the Civil War. Discharged due to malaria, Champney returned to Massachusetts to teach drawing at a young ladies’ seminary in Lexington. In 1866, Champney traveled to Europe to pursue an education in the arts. He studied under French genre painter Édouard Frère in Ecouen, France, as well as under Van Lerius at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. In 1869, he traveled to Italy, and in the same year exhibited his first genre painting at the Paris Salon.

In 1873, Champney was commissioned by Scribner’s Monthly to illustrate a series of articles on “The Great South” by journalist Edward King. Champney and King traveled over 25,000 miles and produced more than 500 illustrations for the series, intended to provide a truthful portrayal of life in the post-Civil War south. The series focused on a different region each month, and was accompanied by extensive illustrations of the people, landscapes and architecture [2].

Champney discovered his love for pastels while teaching art at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Between 1877 and 1884, Champney copied numerous European masterpieces in pastel, which he called “translations.” It was then that the artist began to produce pastel portraits of New York society members and theater personalities, which greatly contributed to his popularity as an artist. To sit for a pastel portrait by Champney was considered a sign of social distinction. His work was frequently exhibited in numerous galleries as well as at the National Academy of Design in New York, New York (1874–1903), the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1876), and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois (1893).

1. Peter Hastings Falk, Who Was Who in American Art, 1564–1975, 400 Years of Artists in America, Vol I: A-F (Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999), 611.
2. Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art (Secaucus, NJ: The Wellfleet Press, 1987), 397.

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