Bard was born on 4 October 1815 in New York City. He produced his first marine depiction, a collaboration with his twin brother John, in 1827. Until 1849 the brothers continued to cosign works. Most of these were watercolors, but after 1845 the pair produced oil paintings as well. In 1850 John Bard disappears from records. He is finally noted as having died destitute at Blackwell's Island on 18 October 1856. James, however, went on to have a long and very productive life, taking advantage of the great boom in steamship building. His career was devoted to the depiction of the vessels that traveled the Hudson River and the waters surrounding Manhattan. Although he painted a few schooners, sloops, and yachts, his energies were more frequently directed toward steamboats.
His clients were shipbuilders, owners, and captains, and he is known to have frequented the shipyards to record colors and measurements for the vessels under construction. His mature works appeared to be so accurate that some observed "they could lay down plans for a boat from one of his pictures, so correct were their proportions." Though Bard's precise draftsmanship is exceptional, no record has been found to indicate that he studied mechanical drawing. It has been estimated that Bard painted nearly four thousand images of steamboats. While this figure may be exaggerated, it is consistent with the artist's prolificacy. He might very well have completed one painting per week throughout his life; two of his paintings, Boston and Ocean bear the date March 1850.
Although Bard was noted by his friend Samuel Ward Stanton, author of American Steam Vessels, to have functioned as a marine historian of great merit, his art received little notice. In the latter half of his career he knew other New York marine painters such as James Buttersworth, Antonio Jacobsen, and Fred Pansing, but his gay, linear and decorative paintings remained highly individualistic. He evidently made no great fortune from his skills. On his death in 1897 in White Plains, New York, he was buried in a section of the cememtery reserved for indigents. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Sniffen, Harold S. "James and John Bard--Painters of Steamboat Portraits." Art in America 37 (April 1949): 51-66.
Peluso, Anthony J., Jr. J & J Bard, Picture Painters. New York, 1977.
Chotner, Deborah, with contributions by Julie Aronson, Sarah D. Cash, and Laurie Weitzenkorn. American Naive Paintings. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 6-7.