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HomeContents > People > Photographers > J. Wells Champney

Born: James Wells Champney 
Dates:  1843, 16 July - 1903, 1 May
Born:  US, MA, Boston
Died:  US, NY, New York City

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for J. Wells Champney
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

James Wells Champney was born on July 16, 1843, in Boston, and served briefly in the military during the Civil War before undertaking a career as an artist.
He initially worked as a wood engraver in Boston, studied art in France and Antwerp, and returned to the United States in 1870 to open a studio in Boston. After illustrating popular magazines such as Scribner’s Monthly and exhibiting oil paintings (signed "Champ") in the Centennial Exhibition, he moved his studio to Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1876, and became a professor of art at nearby Smith College. In 1879, he opened another studio on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, where he became highly sought after by wealthy New Yorkers wishing painted portraits. Champney became America’s foremost pastellist, producing, in addition to his own original portraits, pastel copies of master paintings from European art galleries. He traveled frequently to Europe throughout his life and maintained his home in Deerfield as a summer workplace. His wife, Elizabeth Williams Champney, was a successful literary contributor to popular magazines and author of children’s books, many of which were illustrated by her husband.
Champney was active photographically from the late 1880s, when he exhibited his prints and lantern slides in members’ shows of the Society of Amateur Photography of New York. He was a founding member of the Camera Club of New York and highly visible as a club critic, committee member, and participant in discussions at the club’s monthly meetings.
He wrote for many photographic publications, including the American Annual of Photography, which ran eight articles by him between 1887 and 1901. He also contributed pieces to Camera Notes and Photographic Times, as well as a chapter on portrait lighting in W. I. Lincoln Adam’s 1897 book, Sunlight and Shadow. Alfred Stieglitz included in the October 1900 issue of Camera Notes a circular photogravure by Champney, of a women’s profile. Not surprisingly, Champney used photographs to aid his paintings, and some canvases show heavy reliance upon particular images.
J. Wells Champney had the dubious distinction of dying in the building that housed the Camera Club of New York, where, on May 1, 1903, he accidentally fell down the elevator shaft. 
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
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