James Duncan was born in Coleraine, Ireland in 1806. He immigrated to Canada in around 1825, and was settled in Montreal by the 1830s. During the rebellion of 1837-1838, Duncan served as first lieutenant in the Montreal Light Infantry. In spite of his military activities, however, Duncan's career moved increasingly towards teaching and painting, and there were exhibitions of his work in Montreal during his lifetime. Newton Bosworth's 1839 book, Hochelaga Depicta, was illustrated by Duncan. He subsequently did illustrations for The London Illustrated News and the Canadian Illustrated News. Duncan died in Montreal in 1881.