James Hamilton (1819-1878)


James Hamilton (1819-1878). Oil on canvas measures 8 x 13 inches; 13 x 18 inches in original frame. Signed lower left. Excellent condition with no damage or restoration.



Birth place: Entrien, near Belfast, Ireland

Death place: San Francisco

Addresses: Phila., PA, from 1834 (spent his career there except for some travel)

Profession: Marine and landscape painter

Studied: a wealthy patron supported his studies at a drawing school in Phila; some study at PAFA

Exhibited: Artists’ Fund Soc., Phila., 1840-45; PAFA, 1847-69, 1876-78, 1880; other galleries in Phila., NYC, Boston, Baltimore & Wash., DC; NAD, 1867; Brooklyn Mus., 1966 (retrospective)

Work: PAFA; Free Library Phila.; Phila. Maritime Mus.; Pa. Hist. Soc., Phila.; Atwater Kent Mus.; BMFA; MMA; Brooklyn Mus.; Oakland AM; Shelburne (VT) Mus.

Comments: Hamilton specialized in marine scenes in the Romantic tradition, depicting turbulent storms at sea, shipwrecks, and naval battles; he was a great admirer of Joseph M.W. Turner. In 1834 (age 15) he emigrated with his parents to Phila. Encouraged by John Sartain (see entry) and others, he established himself as a landscape artist, and about 1840 became a teacher of drawing in Phila. Among his students was Thomas Moran. Hamilton was in London 1854-55. After his return to Phila. he was commissioned to illustrate Kane’s Arctic Explorations and Fremont’s Memoirs. In 1875 he sold off 109 of his paintings at auction in Phila. to fund a trip around the world, but he died in San Francisco without completing that trip.

Sources: G&W; Baur, A Romantic Impressionist: James Hamilton,” eight repros.; Strickland, Dictionary of Irish Artists; Clement and Hutton; CAB; Portfolio (June-July 1952), 218-220, repro.; Benjamin, “Fifty Years Of American Art,” 490, repro.; Rasmussen, “Artists of the Explorations Overland, 1840-60,” 57; Phila. CD 1840-60 and after; 7 Census (1850), Pa., LV, 392; Rutledge, PA; Cowdrey, AA & AAU; Cowdrey, NAD; Swan, BA; Rutledge, MHS; Washington Art Assoc. Cat., 1859. More recently, see Baigell, Dictionary; Hughes, Artists in California, 232; Muller, Paintings and Drawings at the Shelburne Museum, 73 (w/repro.); 300 Years of American Art, vol. 1, 185; Falk, Exh. Record Series.


Born in Ireland, James Hamilton became a landscape painter and is credited with painting one of the first American seascapes, The Sea at Atlantic City, in 1868. Few of his seascapes have survived, but exhibition records reveal that he did numerous coastal scenes from New York to Maryland.

He came to the United States, settling with his family in Philadelphia, at age fifteen.  His early teachers are unknown, but he had guidance in book and magazine illustration.  He enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and in addition to painting, gained skill in engraving and etching.He was a great admirer of the landscapes of English painter J.M.W. Turner, and became known as the “American Turner” because of his vivid lighting effects in coastal scenes and seascapes.  His only recorded trip abroad was to England in 1854 and 1855, and he studied Turner’s paintings while there.  He also had a studio in Wilmington, Delaware, but mainly he lived in Philadelphia.

One of Hamilton’s paintings, What Are the Wild Waves Saying, was inspired by a scene from Charles Dicken’s novel Dombey and Son.  Hamilton gave the painting to Dickens, and Dickens, expressing much appreciation, later said it was the only gift he accepted during his American tour.

Hamilton also became well known for illustrations of the book Arctic Explorations by Elisha Kent Kane. In 1878, he died in San Francisco, attempting but not completing a trip around the world.