Dobson was born in London and must have received a good classical education. Little is known of him until he emerged at the court of Charles I in Oxford in 1642, during the Civil War. Van Dyck had died in 1641 so Dobson was effectively the painter to the king and court. Less elegant than Van Dyck, his portraits often include learned references and at their best have a heroic solidity. Dobson returned to London in 1646, where he died in poverty.