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 William "Billy" James, Jr.  (1882 - 1961)

About: William "Billy" James, Jr.


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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/New Hampshire      Known for: portrait and landscape painting, teaching

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Ad Code: 3
William James
from Auction House Records.
Landscape with Trees
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
William [Billy] James Jr. was an art instructor at Museum of Boston Fine Art’s School from 1913-1926 and later a chairman and its director. As an artist he was essentially a portrait painter, whose work does include some landscapes, a small amount of still lives as well as some watercolors. Many of his portraits, identified as to sitter, can be found on Microfilm Reel 4392 from the William James Papers at the Smithsonian.

James Jr. was the son of theologian and philosopher William James Sr. as well as the nephew of the renowned novelist Henry James, James Sr’s. brother. William Jr. would attend Harvard to pursue a medical degree, as did his father who had enrolled in Harvard Medical School in 1864, first taught at Harvard in 1873, and became a full professor there in 1885.

James Jr. finished his four year program in three years and then embarked to the University of Geneva studying science and anatomy. He also attended the University of Marburg in Germany. He returned to Harvard to graduate with his fellow students and was elected the president of his class in the Signet Society in his graduating senior year, 1903.

But in 1904, instead of pursuing more medical studies, he attended the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School. In 1906-1907 he went to Paris and studied at the Academie Julian. He met Claude
Monet and had an acquaintance with Mary Cassatt. He became long-time friends with John Singer Sargent, who painted a watercolor of James Jr’s wife, Alice Runnells James, in 1921.

In none of the biographies consulted of William James, Sr, nor in his mother’s biography, Alice in James Land by Susan Gunter, is any reason given for this change in his career path. Gunter does mention that in 1898, before he attended Harvard, James Jr painted hours on end. So it is unknown if his previous love of painting, as well as the art he might have been exposed to in Geneva and Germany played a role in this decision.

James Sr. had thought that he would like to be an artist and apprenticed under William Morris Hunt alongside of John La Farge, who remarked, after James Sr's death, that he had the possibility of becoming a great painter. Likely James Sr. played a role as well in his son's decision.

James Jr.'s brother, Alexander James (1890-1946) studied under Abbott H. Thayer in Dublin New Hampshire and Frank W. Benson in Boston Massachusetts. Alexander became a well-known New Hampshire artist and achieved fame.
According to author Susan Gunter, James Jr. returned to Boston in December 1907 and spent many hours painting images of his mother. In 1913 he became an instructor at the same Boston School Museum that he had attended in 1904, and his classes were Beginning Drawing and Painting. He was an instructor at the school until 1926.

He joined the Guild of Boston Artists of which the president was Edmund Tarbell who had been an instructor at the Boston Museum School when James Jr. attended in 1904. He became a member of the Tavern Club of which John Singer Sargent was also a member.

James Jr. exhibited a portrait of his mother, seated, at the 1925 Annual Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in February and Marcj of that year. It was awarded the Carol H. Beck Gold Medal for the Best Portrait.

Considering that there were a number of portraits being exhibited by other artists, some of whom had obtained a great deal of fame, this was quite an honor for James Jr.  He was also awarded a silver medal at the 1915 San Francisco Exposition as well as a Greenough gold medal at the 1930 Newport Art Association exhibition.

In 1931 James Jr. was appointed chairman of the Advisory Council of the Boston Museum School, replacing his old mentor Edmund Tarbell, and he served as Director of the Boston Museum School from 1936 to 1938. Commenting on the handling by James Jr. of this job artist Robert Hale Ives Gammell, who attended the Boston Museum School and was the author of The Boston Painters 1900-1930, suggests in that 1950 book that the Boston Museum School lost its effective teaching method in 1930 and “that suicidal change of course was instituted by William James, an alumnus and ex-teacher of the Museum School who had been made chairman of the governing board in that year.” [Actually James Jr. was made chairman in March of 1931.]
In another section Gammell states: "In my concluding chapter I shall have more to say about the intellectual narrowness of the second-generation Bostonians, a shortcoming which rendered them helpless and vulnerable under the “ideological onslaughts of the nineteen thirties.” But in his final statements on the matter he does not mention or hold James Jr., or the Museum School, responsible but instead focuses the blame on the Museum itself when he ends by saying:  
 “with a powerful assist given by a cabal ensconced in the topmost echelons of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from 1933 on, brought the centuries old, gloriously fecund teaching tradition of Western painting to a whimpering close at Boston in our mid-century.”

Without Gammell being specific he is likely talking about the failure of the Boston artists to adopt or be taught the less-disciplined avant-garde forms of art that were making their way since the 1913 Armory Show, that would become standard for many decades in the art world. Part of this can be laid at the doors of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for not encouraging, purchasing, displaying, and teaching some of these new exciting forms. That the Museum’s attitude would find translation in their school teaching seems to be a likely consequence.
Boston would never return to its former glory.

In 1951 James Jr. received Harvard’s Signet Society Medal for Achievements in the Arts.
Written and submitted by Richard McGrath, researcher of work by the artist


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