James Quinn's parents died when he was young. He grew up with guardians who apprenticed the young Quinn to an engraver, while attending classes part time at the National Gallery of Victoria School under the tutelage of Frederick McCubbin in 1887-89, and at the school of painting under George Folingsby and Bernard Hall in 1890-93. He was awarded several student prizes including the travelling scholarship in 1893.
Embarking on the scholarship in 1894, Quinn travelled to London and then Paris where he studied at the Academie-Julian and then the Academie des Beaux-Arts under Jean Paul Laurens. In 1902, he returned to London and married fellow student Blanch Louise Guernier. By 1904 he had established himself as a portrait painter and was exhibiting with the Royal Academy in London. He was well known for his sensitive painting; as a result he received many high profile portrait commissions, including politician Joseph Chamberlain, the Duchess of York, and later the Duke of Windsor.
In 1918-1919, he was engaged as an official war artist for the AIF in France. He produced 18 portraits of significant AIF service personnel, mostly generals, for the Memorial's collection. In 1919, James Quinn joined fellow Australian George Coates, working as an official war artist for Canada. Throughout the next 20 years he took on organisational roles and exhibited regularly with the London Portrait Society, the Royal Society of Portrait painters and the Royal Institute of Oil Painters. His connections in France would see him exhibit with the old and new salons in Paris.
In 1935, he returned to Australia alone following the death of his much beloved and talented son Rene. In Australia, he continued to exhibit with the Fine Art Society in Melbourne and the Royal South Australian Society of Arts. As President of the Victorian Artist's Society from 1937 to 1950, excepting one year, he continued to exhibit as an artist of renown until his death in 1951.