James Hamilton began as a businessman before deciding to pursue a career in art. He worked as a drawing teacher in Philadelphia, 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. 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.