James Fairman worked as a landscape painter, critic, lecturer, musician, and teacher. Fairman came to the United States in 1832 and studied at the National Academy of Design in 1842. He exhibited drawings at the American Institute in 1846. After serving as a colonel in the Civil War, he opened a studio in New York City. In 1871 he went to Europe where he spent the next ten years. He held the position of teacher at Olivel College beginning in 1880.
He exhibited at the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.