Born near Asheville, North Carolina, James Daugherty became one of the early exponents of American abstract painting with a focus on exploration of color and design. He was inspired by Henri Matisse and the Fauvist movement in France, and by the Synchromist movement led by Arthur B Frost, Jr; Morgan Russell, and Stanton Macdonald-Wright. His signature painting style in the early 1900s was arrangements of highly complex segments of color.
Daugherty was also a WPA artist during the 1930s, producing many murals, especially in Connecticut where he had a studio and home in Stamford. At this time his style became more realistic, and his subject matter often referenced working-class African Americans or Native Americans. A prolific illustrator, Daugherty completed more than 50 book commissions including biographies of Abraham Lincoln by Carl Sandberg and Knickerbocker's History of New York by Washington Irving.
He spent his early childhood in a highly cultured family, living near Lafayette, Indiana. In the late 1890s, he enrolled in the Corcoran Gallery's Free School in Washington D.C., and in Philadelphia he studied with William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
From 1905-1907, James Daugherty traveled in Europe and studied muralism at the London School of Art with Frank Brangwyn. When he worked as an illustrator in New York City, he developed his friendship with Arthur B. Frost, Jr., who exposed him to abstract techniques.