James McDougal Hart started his career as a painter doing commercial work, painting signs and carriages in New York. He was born in Scotland but had moved with his parents to the United States at a young age.
McDougal is a painter of the Hudson River School, a method of landscaping popular in the first half of the 19th Century. Painters of the school typically produced tranquil, calming renderings of the environs around the Hudson River and the surrounding areas.
Hart studied in Europe, under Friedrich Wilhelm Schirmer in Dusseldorf. His first exhibition at the National Academy of Design was held in 1848. He was elected an associate of that institution in 1857. In 1859, he became a full member of the Academy and his involvement in the organization would become a lifelong commitment toward which he put great energy. He eventually served as the vice president of the Academy, from 1895 - 1899 and exhibited his works there for over forty years.
James McDougal Hart is particularly well-known for his painting in large formats. He was a gifted cattle painter, as well, and cattle paintings constituted some of his more popular pieces but it is landscapes for which Hart is most remembered.