One of the South’s preeminent landscape painters, James Cameron was born in Scotland and arrived in America around 1840, settling first in Philadelphia where he married Emma Alcock, also an artist. Following a wedding trip to Italy, the couple moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and then to Chattanooga, where he was persuaded to establish a studio by Colonel James A. Whitehead. He painted the portraits of Whitehead and others, but preferred landscapes, and when time permitted he painted the mountains, valleys and rivers of the region.
Cameron became sufficiently prosperous to purchase property on a large hill in what is now downtown Chattanooga and to build an impressive villa overlooking the Tennessee River. He left when the armies arrived in 1863 and returned following the War, but was disillusioned by the devastation of the landscape and gave up painting. He became a Presbyterian minister and moved to Oakland, California, where he died in 1882.
Not many of Cameron’s landscapes survive. Lyon’s Island is a smaller version of one of his most idyllic scenes, Belle Isle from Lyon’s View, painted in 1861 (Tennessee State Museum, Nashville, Tennessee). It was in formerly in the collection of Mrs. John J. Craig of Knoxville. According to an inscription on the back, the viewpoint is five miles below Knoxville on the Tennessee River.
In 1872 an earlier John J. Craig returned to the area after an absence of twenty-five years, and described the scene in terms close to Cameron’s painting: “A sad change had indeed come over all that was dear to our memory; but the glorious panorama which now unfolded before us had remained the same in all its original and impressive loveliness. The locality still bore the name of our paternal ancestors, and during our wanderings from home “Lyon’s View” had become famous and was visited by thousands. It has often inspired the pen and pencil of the poet and the painter; but none, in my opinion, has ever done justice to the marvelous beauty of the landscape. Indeed it cannot be done without an almost hourly observation every day in the year, to catch the fleeting and ever changing lights and shadows which chase each other over the waving corn-fields of the valley, and up and down the sides of the great “Smoky,” which, separated into three distinct and parallel ranges, loom up in the dim distance and lift dome upon dome, until they become literally mingled and lost amid the clouds of heaven.”
Craig, John J., “A May Evening on Lyon’s View,” Extracts from the Autobiography of a Cherokee Chief, translated from the original by Miss Mamie Craig, Knoxville, Tennessee: S. B. Newman, Steam Book and Job Printing Office, 1883.