Born in Palatine, Illinois on March 15, 1867, he was one of four sons of a prominent Chicago merchant. He attended Yale University and graduated from its Sheffield Scientific School in 1888, and later returned as an instructor for the 1890 academic year. He later studied art in various cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, Paris and Munich, specializing in landscape painting. He married Helen Shearman in California in 1891. He moved with his wife and two children, Samuel H. McCrea and Helen R. McCrea, to Paris in 1896. He later moved back to the United States in 1901 following the death of his wife in Paris, and lived in Chicago before settling in Darien, Connecticut, where he lived until his death in 1941.
A cache of correspondence from artist William Wendt to Samuel Harkness McCrea, dated between 1896 and 1901, (owned by Thom Gianetto of the Edenhurst Gallery in Palm Desert, California) was transcribed by California scholar Nancy Moure. The letters have been reprinted verbatim in the Historical Collections Council Newsletters, Los Angeles, in 2006. Copies of the letters are archived at the Laguna Art Museum. The letters, quoted extensively in The Life and Art of William Wendt by Dr. Will South reveal not only information about Wendt's early travels, associations and attitudes, but also attests to the close friendship of McCrea and Wendt.
Wendt traveled with McCrea in California in 1896, corresponded frequently with McCrea during McCrea's time in Europe, and also spent time with him in 1898 at Cornwall, England, where Wendt spent six months with his friend, fellow Chicago artist Gardner Symons, before going to Paris in 1899 to work and exhibit work in May of 1899. Wendt offered to take care of McCrea's work locally if he wanted to submit paintings to American exhibitions while living in Paris. The letters' contents reveal that Wendt considered McCrea to be both a professional colleague and personal friend, and it is believed that McCrea, who had inherited from his father in 1891, assisted Wendt as he struggled to gain recognition in his early years. Wendt detailed his artistic progress and associations with other artists in the correspondence, providing interesting details of the lives of the Chicago artists in the 1890's and turn of the century.
While living in Paris between 1896 and 1901, McCrea maintained contact with many other American artists living in the city at that time, hosting many with his wife at weekly social Sunday gatherings. His wife, Helen Shearman McCrea, recounts the visits in frequent correspondence from Paris to her mother, who lived in California, during the years of 1896 and 1900, when she died suddenly in Paris. McCrea then returned to Chicago in 1901, ultimately settling in Darien, Connecticut.
McCrea's work is displayed at the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami and the Art Gallery of Yale University. He donated much of his work during his lifetime, and his daughter, Helen McCrea Quackenbush continued this practice following her inheritance of his work upon his death in 1941. Prior to his death, his landscapes were exhibited in Chicago, New York and Paris. His work was exhibited in 2006 at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut at an exhibition of landscape artists.