Born in Kilmarnock, Scotland, Hart moved to Albany, New York with his family at the age of two. There, he trained as an apprentice under a sign and carriage maker, but returned to Europe for artistic training in 1851 at age twenty-three. He studied in Munich under Friedrich Wilhelm Schirmer at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Before returning to America permanently in 1853, Hart exhibited his first work at the National Academy of Design in 1848. He was elected an associate in 1857 and a became a full academician in 1859. He would exhibit there for over forty years, and serve as Vice President from 1895 to 1899, ending his tenure just two years before his death.
Based in New York City, James McDougal Hart-like his brother William-painted in the style of the Hudson River School. Unlike his brother, who painted mostly small and mid-sized works, James favored painting larger landscapes, a likely result of his exposure to the large realist works of the Düsseldorf School. He was known for his renderings of livestock, specifically cattle. His major landscapes are considered some of the most important works to come out of the Hudson River School; a notable example is his Summer in the Catskills, now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.
Presented at the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design in 1876, this major summation piece for Hart would have been a highlight. This genre would have had broad appeal and communicated two important messages. Trained in Germany, this painting belies Hart's European training and influences, demonstrating his exposure the Barbizon movement and classical German landscape painting techniques. However, Hart is a pure American landscape artist and in this work he wishes to convey a deeper message of love for the American landscape and its promise, bounty and richness. The American landscape at this time was a symbol of a new life and boundless opportunity. The cattle, sheep and resources of the land represented the chance at prosperity still to be discovered. Among Friends really represented both a unity between humans and nature but a deeper message of gratitude and harmony.
Among Friends today is a significant work that allows us to track our history and progress. There are many parallels to the simplicity of life at that time, rooted in the land and basic work and needs that contrasts with much of society today which barely notices or thinks about these concerns. Among Friends stands as an important contrast to where innovation and industry has led us. Similar to reading a book by Thoreau or even D. H Lawrence, this work is a visual bookmark of a time we don't recognize any longer and from which we have traveled and might never return.
Private Collection, Newtown, CT
National Academy of Design, 1876, no. 409