Gibson's father, a miniaturist and engraver, died prematurely from tuberculosis, leaving his son to support the family from an early age. David Cooke Gibson trained at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh and devoted himself to portrait painting to earn a living, but his mother and sister died shortly after each other in 1844-45. The following year Gibson had considerable success at the Academy where he received three prizes for his works. After travelling to Belgium and France to study the Old Masters he moved back to Edinburgh, settling in London in 1852. His inherited bad health forced him to spend the winter of 1855-6 in Spain. He returned to England in June but died in London four months later, aged only 29.