James Wells Champney was born in Boston on July 16, 1843. His professional art instruction commenced at the Lowell Institute, where he studied drawing. At age 16, he apprenticed with a local wood engraver. During the Civil War, joined the army and served in the 45th regiment of Massachusetts' volunteer militia. After the war, he continued his artistic training, studying drawing at Dr. Dio Lewis's school in Lexington, Massachusetts, and then traveled to Europe to study under painters Edouard Frere in Paris and Jozef Van Lerius at Belgium's Antwerp Academy. Settling again in Boston where he worked as a struggling painter, in 1873 he was commissioned by Scribner's Monthly to make sketches of the American South that encompassed 20,000 miles and 500 drawings. In 1875, he married Elizabeth Williams, and their family grew to include son Edouard Frere and daughter Maria Mitchell.
After exhibiting his painting "Not so ugly as he looks" at the Paris Salon, he returned to Massachusetts where he built an elaborate studio in Deerfield and accepted an art professorship at Smith College. In 1878, Scribner's Monthly sent Mr. Champney to Brazil to sketch the country featured in a series of articles. Upon his return, he opened a studio in New York where he distinguished himself as a watercolor painter, which resulted in memberships in the prestigious American Water-Color Socity and the Salmagundi Sketch Club. During the 1880s, his growing interest in photography led to a popular lecture series in which he critiqued prints, discussed lantern slides, and emphasized the aesthetic advantages of Pictorialism. His growing influence in the photographic community is evidenced by his active membership in the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York and the Camera Club. In his review of Dr. P. H. Emerson's book Naturalistic Photography, published in an 1889 issue of The Cosmopolitan, Mr. Champney advocated a diverse education for the serious photographer that included art history, scientific proficiency in chemistry and optics, and "a passionate study of nature."
Mr. Champney's studio emphasized the manipulation of lighting achieved by an 8 x 10 foot plate-glass window and pulling down a white curtain to eliminate top light. He raised a dark curtain over his sitter's head to create the desired background. Mr. Champney preferred to feature his sitter in contrasts of soft light and shadow. Positioning his camera toward the window, he could vary lighting intensity by hanging a plate-glass mirror over his dark curtain, and with the lighted sitter facing the window, he photographed the sitter's mirrored reflection. Sadly, the life and burgeoning photographic career of James Wells Champney were brought to an abrupt and tragic end on May 1, 1903 when he fell from an elevator shaft at the Camera Club of New York.
1903 The American Amateur Photographer, Vol. XV (New York: The American Photographic Publishing Co.), pp. 254-255.
1896 American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac, Vol. XI (New York: The Scovill & Adams Company), pp. 54-58.
1889 American Art and American Art Collections, Vol. II (Boston: E. W. Walker & Co.), pp. 561-576.
1889 The Cosmopolitan, Vol. VII (New York: The Cosmopolitan Publishing Company), pp. 419-420.
2014 James Wells Champney (1843-1903) (URL: http://www.memorialhall.mass.edu/collection/itempage.jsp?itemid=1535).
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