Born in Belfast, Ireland, James Hamilton moved with his family to Philadelphia in 1834 at the age of 15. Largely self-taught, he was most successful with his marine paintings, but also excelled at engraving and book illustration. Widely traveled, Hamilton sold a total of 109 paintings in 1875 which financed a painting trip around the world.
Extremely well known in his lifetime, Hamilton was called "the American Turner" because of his admiration for that artist and the influence J.W.M. Turner had on his work. He is also acclaimed as the teacher of American master Thomas Moran.
Hamilton exhibited widely, including the Royal Academy in 1854-55 while he was in England and the Paris Salon. In this country his works were shown at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1840 and the National Gallery in 1846. Late in his career, he moved to San Francisco where he continued to paint and exhibit until his death in 1878.