James D. Duncan was born in 1806 in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. He spent the first nineteen years of his life in Ireland. In 1825, after having received some artistic training, he immigrated to Lower Canada, and by 1830 settled in Montréal as a professional artist and teacher of drawing. During the rebellion of 1837 Duncan held a commission as lieutenant in a light infantry regiment.
In later life Duncan achieved financial as well as artistic success. He displayed his work at the Great Exhibition in London, England, in 1851, the provincial exhibitions at Montréal 1863–65, the Art Association of Montréal 1865–79, the Society of Canadian Artists 1867–71, and with the Royal Canadian Academy in 1881.
In 1879 he travelled to England and Scotland. In 1880 he returned to Montréal.
Recognized as an artist of distinction, in 1847 Duncan had been a founding member, along with Krieghoff, and treasurer of the Montréal Society of Artists, and he was elected a member of the Society of Canadian Artists at Montréal in 1867 and an associate of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1880.
He died 28 in 1881 in Montréal, Québec.