James Fairman (1826-1904)

James Fairman (1826-1904)

The son of a refugee Swedish army officer, James Fairman was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1826 and immigrated to New York with his widowed mother when he was just six years old. Ten years later, he began his studies at the National Academy of Design and by 1844 he was exhibiting at the American Institute. Little information about his life is available for the next twenty years until Fairman resurfaced as a Union colonel in the Civil War. He served two years before being wounded in 1863, and when the war ended he opened a studio in New York City where he devoted himself to perfecting his art.

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Although his work was exhibited regularly at the National Academy, the Brooklyn Art Association and the Pennsylvania Academy, Fairman personality caused rifts in many of the artistic institutions he cultivated.  In 1867, he wrote several articles for the Chicago Art Journal in which he criticized the art instruction of the day, specifically at the National Academy, and in the same year he gave three lectures at the Cooper Institute in New York: “The Artist’s Mission,” “The Artist’s Preparation,” and “The Artist’s Work.” Thus began a second career traveling to cities around the country and speaking against the limitations of the art world “establishment.” His passionate discourses and writing forced the artist to create his own audience through various means; he became famous for his paintings of the Holy Land, was a successful portraitist, and marketed his work beyond the east coast, where he was better received.  In addition, Fairman presented himself as an expert on many subjects, particularly in small-town America, and made the most of his many political connections.  He traveled widely in the United States and abroad, leaving for the Holy Land in 1871 and staying in Europe for almost ten years. His time in Dusseldorf, Paris and London piqued his interest in a scientific approach to painting, resulting in his concentration on the atmospheric qualities, meteorological effects and solar phenomena of a landscape: “Scientific knowledge has opened to Fairman the artistic method of rendering the sunbeam…The golden radiance over the hills of Jerusalem, the glow of the oriental sky, the evanescent beauty of the foaming billows of the ocean, the light streaming through the leaves and branches of the birch-tree, or falling on the backs of cattle from the open gateway of the sun – who has given the world better pictures of all these?”[1]

Upon his return to America, Fairman taught art at tiny Olivet College in Michigan, where he received the coveted title of Master of Arts. Ever an itinerant, he also lived in Los Angeles for a year, where he painted and exhibited widely. At the close of his career, he proposed to New York dealer William Macbeth that he exhibit a large panoramic painting, despite the gallery’s focus on showing smaller, more intimate works by Barbizon-style painters. Fairman may have seemed out of step with the traditional art world of his day, yet he was not afraid to ruffle the feathers of the old guard and achieved fame and success in his chosen market.

Fairman’s work is held in the collections of the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, New York, and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland, among others.

References: See Who Was Who In American Art (1999). John Davis, The Landscape of Belief: Encountering the Holy Land in 19th Century American Art (Princeton University Press, 1996); Edan Milton Hughes, Artists in California: 1786-1940, 2002; A Biographical Sketch of Col. James Fairman, A.M. the American Artist and Lecturer, from the London “Art Journal,” and “Biograph.” (London, 1880).


[1] A Biographical Sketch of Col. James Fairman, A.M. the American Artist and Lecturer, from the London “Art Journal,” and “Biograph.” (London, 1880), p. 5.

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