James Reid Lambdin was born in Pittsburgh on May 10, 1807. His father's death in 1812 left his family in difficult financial straits, so at age twelve Lambdin left school to work in a bookstore. There he studied art instruction books and taught himself to draw. After seeing a reproduction of one of Gilbert Stuart's portraits of George Washington, Lambdin determined to pursue a career as a painter. In 1823 he went to Philadelphia, intending to study with Thomas Sully (1783-1872). Sully, however, only agreed to take him as an apprentice after he had completed six months of training with Edward Miles (1752-1828), a portrait and miniature painter and one time court artist in both England and Russia. Lambdin exhibited a portrait at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1824; he returned to Pittsburgh in 1826 and quickly established a reputation as a portrait painter.
In 1827 Lambdin established and ran a Museum of Natural History and Gallery of Painting in Pittsburgh, which included both artistic and scientific displays and was clearly inspired by the famous Peale Museum in Philadelphia. Lambdin married in 1828; his first son, George Cochran Lambdin (who would become a prominent genre and still-life painter) was born in 1830. Seeking new commissions, Lambdin moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1832 and also made visits to Mobile, Natchez, New York, and Philadelphia.
Lambdin settled permanently in Philadelphia in 1837. He was appointed an officer of the Artists' Fund Society in 1838, and served as its Vice President in 1840-43 and as President from 1845 to 1867. In 1845 he was named director of the Pennsylvania Academy and was Chairman of the Committee on Instruction for many years. Lambdin also served, with John F. Kensett (1816-1872) and the sculptor Henry Kirke Brown (1814-1886), on the National Arts Commission, which was charged with overseeing commissions and acquisitions for the U. S. Capitol. From 1861 to 1866 Lambdin was Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania.
Lambdin was a prolific painter and among his sitters were some of America's most prominent citizens, including John Quincy Adams, James A. Garfield, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, John Marshall, and Henry Clay. He died in Philadelphia on January 31, 1889. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
One Hundred Early American Paintings. Exh. cat. Ehrich Galleries, New York, 1918, 64-65.
O'Connor, John. "Reviving a Forgotten Artist: A Sketch of James Reid Lambdin--the Pittsburgh Painter of American Statesmen." The Carnegie Magazine 12 (1938): 115-118.
Jones, Arthur F., and Bruce Weber. The Kentucky Painter from the Frontier Era to the Great War. Lexington, 1981: 58.
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 403.