Reid was born in Aberdeen and worked first as a lithographer before moving to Edinburgh in 1862 to study at the Trustees' Academy. In 1866, supported by the Aberdeen collector, John Forbes White, he went to Holland to study under the landscape and genre painter, Gerrit Mollinger. He became a close friend of Jozef Israels. He returned to Scotland in 1869, producing landscapes and portraits influenced by both Dutch and French contemporary painting. He was elected President of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1891 and knighted in 1902.