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.
James Hamilton began as a businessman before deciding to pursue a career in art. He worked as a drawing teacher in Philadelphia since 1840, then traveled to England in 1854 to study the works of Turner and other great landscape painters.
After a year abroad, Hamilton returned to Philadelphia, where he established himself as an illustrator, collaborating on such volumes as "Arctic Explorations", the memoirs of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, who had made two expeditions to Arctic waters.
One of Hamilton’s paintings "What Are the Wild Waves Saying" was inspired by a scene from Charles Dickens' 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.
In 1875 Hamilton placed all of his artworks for sale in Philadelphia as he prepared for a journey around the world. He got only as far as San Francisco, however, where he died in 1878.
Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania
Untitled (Harbor Scene)
What Are The Wild Waves Saying
The Convict Ship T.K. Hervey
Sunset on a Rough Sea
After a Gale - Wreckers
Scene on the Hudson (Rip Van Winkle)
Foggy Morning on the Thames
Sunset on the Jersey Flats
After the Storm on the Coast of Newfoundland
Bayou in Moonlight
In theSalt Marshes of N. J.
Marches, New Jersey
The Last Days of Pompeii
A Game Of Chess
On Hampstead Heath
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.