James Fairman (1826 – 1904)

James Fairman - Oriental Oasis

Oriental Oasis

Signed & Dated 72

Oil o nCanvas

24 x 34 inches (61 x 86 cm)

A great curiosity of nineteenth-century American art, James Fairman can be considered a truly ‘independent artist’ who supported himself through patronage that was outside the official art institutions of New York City. Fairman was born in the same year as Frederic Church and like him first went to the Middle East somewhat late in life during his mid forties. Like Church, Fairman produced large, realistic landscapes that had shared as affinity to the work of popular panorama painters. But whereas Church’s large landscapes, began in the mid 1870s to become objects of derision among the elite circles that had earlier embraced him, Fairman, by astute cultivation of rich if unsophisticated provincial patrons, maintained a buying public for his works.

Fairman’s personality is hard to ascertain. Whereas he had a professional reputation as quarrelsome and acerbic since he was always attacking the art establishment of the East Coast cities, however he was extremely popular as a visiting lecturer in the inland cities where he cultivated his patronage. He must have had a dynamic presence to maintain his popularity and patronage in scattered places by visits that were at the best widely spaced.

The artist’s father was a Napoleonic officer who had followed General Bernadotte to Sweden and then fled to Scotland when the general turned against Napoleon, he married in Scotland, where the artist and his elder brother John were born. His widow took their two boys – John, about nine, and James, then about six – and immigrated to New York City. Both children started drawing at an early age. James, who was encouraged and instructed by his older brother always referred to him as a major talent, but sadly he died only aged eighteen.

Despite his certain artistic inclinations, James was trained as a craftsman. At eighteen he was employed as a bookbinder at Harper’s publishing house in Manhattan; but still anxious to be an artist, in 1844 he enrolled in the evening antique classes at the American Academy of Design under F. Agate and attended classes for some 18 months. The Great Exhibition of London, held beneath Paxton’s Crystal Palace in 1851 attracted him to England, while he later claimed that the quality of English painting was a revelation to him.

Fairman described the next ten years as ‘tentative and preparatory’. He first became active in the abolitionist movement and therein discovered his ability as
A speaker; he claimed later that he studied law and New Testament Greek ‘from an interest in religious and theological truth’.

By the end of 1871 he was in the Holy Land, where he signed the registration book of the American Consulate in Jerusalem in December that year. The subjects he exhibited in New York in early July of the next year could judge the full extent of his travels. These included five views of the Holy Land, one Egyptian subject, one scene from the Swiss Alps and three English landscapes. A reviewer for the New York Evening Post, July 8th 1872, noted that several paintings had been commissioned – which would explain how the trip had been financed – and that Mr Fairman ‘will return to Düsseldorf, where he has a studio, in late July’.

Fairman spent most of the next decade studying and painting in Europe, dividing his time between Düsseldorf, London and Paris. The stay was broken up by several trips home to exhibit and sell his works and to pick up further commissions. In a brochure of circa 1880, which the artist had printed, for distributions were 140 named pictures. Of them 36 were of the Holy Land and 24 of Scotland. An article in the Boston Daily Evening Transcript, 24th February 1880 reported that ‘Colonel James Fairman has been trying to apply late scientific researches into the composition of colour and light to practical painting’. Fairman also let it be known through the press that his pictures sold for over a thousand dollars each. After an active and abundant life, Fairman died in Chicago on 12th March 1904.


John Henry Barrows, “James Fairman, the American Artist and Art Lecturer”, Lawrence, Mass, 1878; 8pp; probably written by Fairman himself.
John Davis, “Picturing Palestine: The Holy Land in Nineteenth Century American Art and Culture”, Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1991; pp. 273-300.
Gerald M. Ackerman, “American Orientalists”, ACR Edition.

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