- Historic Sites
This Is Tranquil Deerfield
As it Looked Ninety Years Ago…
April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
James Wells Ghampney was born in Boston July if), 1843, to James Howe Champney and his wife, Sarah Wells. When the Civil War broke out, he served in the 45th Massachusetts Volunteers for a year or more before being invalided out of the army from the effects of malaria. He then taught drawing at a “Young Ladies’ Seminary” in Lexington, Massachusetts; and it was here that he met his future wife, Eli/abeth Williams. From 1867 to 1869 he studied in Europe, notably under Edouard Frère, a well-known French genre painter; by 1873 he had gained some reputation as an illustrator, and was commissioned by Scribner’s Monthly Magazine to illustrate a series of articles on the Reconstruction South. In that same year he married Miss Williams, and the couple spent a happy two years working and travelling in Europe.
In 1876 the Champneys moved into the old WiI- liains homestead in Deerfiekl, Mrs. Champney’s ancestral home, and Champney built his studio there. They lived in Deerfiekl for several years while he was professor of art at Smith College in Northampton (1877-1884), where he was one of the founders of the Art Gallery. In the summer of 1878 the artist went to Brazil to illustrate another series of articles for Scribner ’s. By now the Champneys had two children, Edouard Frère Champney, horn in France in 1874, and Maria Mitchell Champney, born in 1877 and named for Mrs. Champney’s astronomy teacher at Vassar.
In 1879 Champney opened a studio in New York City, and from that time on the Deerfiekl house became a summer home. Champney never ceased to be cosmopolitan in his habits; frequent European trips confirmed his attachment to the Old World. But his two homes, Deerfiekl and New York, remained the focal points of his life for both work and relaxation.
During these years Champney’s artistic reputation was steadily growing. While he was teaching at Smith, the inquiries of some students had led him to work in pastels, and after 1885 he devoted himself almost exclusively to that medium. He became the foremost American pastellist of his day, well known for his numerous portraits of New York society and theatre people. He exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 and the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893; his pictures, which in earlier days he often had signed simply “Champ,” were now signed “J. Wells Champney,” perhaps in recognition of increased dignity.
Mrs. Champney, who was a popular children’s author, often had her books illustrated by her husband, and everything indicates that the collaboration was a very happy one. Champney was an industrious and prolific painter during these years, but the limits of his profession could not circumscribe his boundless zest and curiosity. He was constantly in demand as a lecturer. He was an early and avid amateur photographer, and also used the camera as an aid to his work. He was fond of books and the theatre, was a member of a do/en clubs and artists’ societies, and with Mrs. Champney entertained generously at their Fifth Avenue home and at Deerfield. “When they arrived, and Mr. Champney was seen on the street, the old town always seemed to come alive,” wrote one villager.
On May 1, 1903, Champney was leaving the Camera Club in New York, when the elevator in which he was riding jammed between two floors. With typical impatience, he attempted to jump to the floor below, missed his footing, and fell down the shaft to his death. He is buried in the old cemetery in Deerfield.