James McRae was born on March 24, 1924, in Marietta to Ruth Leola Campbell and Fred Hampton McRae. His father was a stone carver, and his mother was an accomplished traditional handcrafter.
McRae spent much of his childhood at his grandparents’ farm in Marietta, and the animals there became regular subjects in his later works of art. After his family moved to Atlanta, McRae was able to earn money selling portraits, though he lacked any formal training at the time.
McRae joined the U.S. Navy in 1943, during World War II (1941-45). He was honorably discharged in early 1946 and entered the Atlanta College of Art on the GI Bill. There he learned the skills crucial to his future success as a portrait painter, commercial artist, illustrator, and cartoonist. McRae eventually abandoned commercial work in favor of painting and worked as a studio artist for nearly sixty years.
McRae is remembered as an inventive painter who focused primarily on figurative painting. His work is held in museums and collections worldwide. McRae continued painting until two weeks before his death on December 7, 2010. His acrylic painting Shapes and Sky is part of Georgia’s State Art Collection.