James Wells Champney studied wood carving at a young age, but in 1862, at the start of the civil war, he enrolled in the army. Dismissed due to malaria, he studied drawing with Diocletian Lewis (commonly known as Dr. Dio Lewis) from 1864 to 1866 and then traveled to Europe to pursue an artistic career
In 1867, after a brief stay in London, Champney arrived in Ecouen where he lived and studied for several summers under the tutelage of Pierre Edouard Frere. Following some travels to Anvers (Belgium) and Italy, he exhibited for the first time at the 1869 Salon de Paris. In 1873, Champney married Elizabeth Johnson Williams, from Ohio, United States. Their oldest son, Edouard Frere Champney, was born in Ecouen on May 4th 1874, and grew to be an architect. The choice of the boy’s first and middle name demonstrates the influence of Pierre Edouard Frere, the master, upon Champney, his student, and the convivial relationship between them.
Champney continued to travel through Europe, exhibited again at the Salon de Paris, and was asked by the “Illustration” magazine to illustrate several articles regarding life in America. In 1876, Champney settled down in Deerfield Massachusetts and exhibited at the Centennial International Philadelphia show. He started working with pastels and his portraits of New York high society and theater personalities won him more fame. Nevertheless, the most famous moment of his career was his 1897 exhibition at the New York Knoedler Gallery where he exhibited forty pastels titled “Types of American girlhood”.
James Wells Champney died accidentally, falling down an elevator well.
Although he was known to his friends as “Wells,” he always signed his artworks “Champ.”