Born in Kelso in the Scottish Borders, Ballantyne trained at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh under William Allan and Thomas Duncan, before studying in London, Paris and Rome. When he returned to Edinburgh in 1839, he established himself as a portrait and history painter. In 1848 he was appointed Headmaster of the Trustees' Academy. Ballantyne moved to London in 1863. He is best known for his seventeen canvases showing contemporary artists at work in their studios, painted in the early 1860s. Other paintings from this series are in the National Portrait Gallery, London and Aberdeen City Art Gallery.