American (1826-1904)


oil on canvas, 31 x 72 inches,
signed "James Fairman" and dated "1885" lower right.

James Fairman was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1826. At six years old, his father died and his mother emigrated with her two sons to New York City. James and his older brother both started drawing at an early age although James later went on to train as a craftsman. At eighteen he start-ed working as a bookbinder, but he was still eager to become an artist. He enrolled in evening courses at the American Academy of Design.


In 1851, Fairman traveled to England to visit the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. He was profoundly impressed by the English painting he saw there and later said it was a revelation to him. For the next ten years, Fairman pursued a political career. He started with active participa-tion in the abolitionist movement and through that discovered his talent for public speaking. He continued studies in Latin and Greek and pursued a political agenda driven by his religious morals.


As a politician he was successful in New York City defeating a coalition of anti-Catholic and Protestant groups that were trying to influence the school board. He then tried to run for con-gress in his district, but lost the election. During the Civil War, Fairman quickly became a Colonel in the army, a position he probably acquired through his political connections and prior militia experience.


After the war, Fairman turned his attentions to painting full-time. He set up a studio in New York City in 1863 and regularly exhibited at the National Academy of Design and Society of Painters in Watercolor. He soon developed a reputation for being acerbic. His works were often withdrawn from the Academy possibly over disputes about how they were hung. He argued against the Academy in 1869 and suggested forming a new association.


By late 1871, he had left New York City in pursuit of commissions in Jerusalem and Europe. For the next decade, he spent time at a studio in Dusseldorf and studying painting in London and Paris. He regularly made return trips to New York City to exhibit and sell recent work.


Fairman succeeded where other late 19th century artists struggled. Towards the end of the 19th century, the realist landscapes, religious historical paintings and panoramic landscapes were con-sidered out of style. Fairman toured New York and visited collectors of his work in the Midwest giving lectures about his paintings and art in general. He successfully created a market for his paintings where he sold directly to collectors who would not generally go to the Academy.


Unfortunately, he never mended his ties with the Academy and he fell out of favor in New York City. His work was principally collected by amateur collectors in the United States and he did not receive serious critical attention until after his death. He died in 1904 in Chicago. Today his works are in numerous museums and private collections including the Hudson River Museum and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.1


1 Gerald M. Ackerman, “American Orientalists,” (Paris: ACR Edition, 1994), pp. 76-79.

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