Born in Melbourne in 1871, James Peter Quinn embarked on an extensive study of fine art from the age of 15. He first studied art at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School from 1886 to 1893, then moved to Paris in 1894 where he studied at Julian's, Colarossi and Delacluse Academies, and École des Beaux-Arts with Jean Paul Laurens. After 1902, he moved to London and exhibited with the Royal Academy, establishing an impressive reputation as a portrait painter. In 1912, he won an honorable mention at the French Salon.
In 1918, the War Records Section selected him as an official war artist, placing him at Australian Corps Headquarters in France. He was hired to paint portraits of important officers of the Australian Imperial Forces serving on the Western Front.
Quinn served only three months, but it was a period marked by problems, especially by disagreements with authorities. These included issues of inadequate payment (Quinn received half the amount he was normally paid for portraits) and the fact that Quinn had not brought blankets to the front and there were never any spare. There were also disagreements about who should and should not be painted. According to one letter, Quinn chose for himself all the "plum" generals to paint, leaving other artists at the front feeling dejected, especially as Quinn selected subjects not officially assigned to him. However, Quinn persevered and produced a large number of the portraits of First World War officials held in the Australian War Memorial's collection today, including the portrait of General Howse, one of the "plum" generals assigned to another artist.
After his return to London, Quinn continued to build on his reputation for painting portraits of notable people, including military and political leaders and members of the aristocracy. The Memorial holds a portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) from the time of King George VI's coronation that Quinn painted in 1936.
In 1937, Quinn returned to Australia and was elected president of the Victorian Art School and remained in this position until his death in 1951. He taught at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School during this time and mixed with the local art world. Not until a commemorative exhibition was organised by the Victorian Centre of the Arts in 1980 was Quinn's portraiture style, characterised by strong compositional structure and character analysis, generally acknowledged to surpass the academic standards of his time.