William Bonnar was born in Edinburgh, the son of a housepainter. At an early age he showed an aptitude for painting and was apprenticed to a leading decorative artist. In 1824 he exhibited for the first time as a professional artist; five years later he was elected a member of the Royal Scottish Academy, shortly after its foundation in 1828. Initially, Bonnar specialised in rural scenes and images of children but later on he concentrated on painting portraits, many of which were engraved by his sons. A popular and prolific artist, he painted a range of important sitters, including Thomas Chalmers, William Cunningham and John Blackie Senior.