John Pettie was born in East Linton, Edinburgh, and decided early in life to pursue an artistic career. As a student, he studied with W. Q. Orchardson, J. MacWhirter and Peter Graham. His first published works were illustrations, drawn for the magazine Good Words, and inspired by the illustrations of John Gilbert. Pettie soon turned to painting subject pictures, at first taking purely Scottish themes, then Anglo-Saxon and Norman life. His paintings tended to the melodramatic and to the slightly humorous. He became ARA in 1866 (his diploma picture being Jacobites, 1745) and RA some seven years later, contributing to the Academy Summer Exhibition without break from 1862 until his death in 1893.
Pettie was a rapid painter, on occasion able to complete portraits in as little as two weeks. His picture Vigil was bought for the nation via the Chantrey Bequest. After his death, some 60 studies by him were destroyed, so as to avoid them falling into the hands of other artists who might complete them, sell them as bona fide pictures by Pettie, and damage his reputation.