Ernest Lawson was born in Halifax in 1873. His father, a well-known local physician, decided to move to Kansas City in 1883, leaving his son to reside with his aunt and uncle in Kingston, Ontario. Lawson’s relationship with his scholarly uncle - who was the Principal of Queen's College - was strained and five years later he rejoined his parents in Kansas City.
Lawson studied at the Kansas City Art Institute (1888), the Santa Clara Art Academy (Mexico City, 1890) and the Art Students League (New York, 1891). In 1893 Lawson moved to France where he enrolled at the Académie Julian, met Alfred Sisley and exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Français.
Lawson returned to America, via Canada, in 1897. In 1908 he exhibited in New York as one of ‘The Eight’, also known as the Ashcan School. In 1913 his work was shown in the famous Armory Show. Lawson made many visits to Canada to see friends and relatives, and to paint. In 1919 he revisited Halifax, where the Nova Scotia Museum of Fine Arts held the first exhibition of his work in Canada, and purchased six paintings now in the AGNS’s collection. He visited Nova Scotia again in 1924 and executed a number of paintings, including Summer Clouds
In 1930 Lawson had a successful traveling show, first at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) and then at the Art Association of Montreal (now the Museum of Fine Arts). In 1967 the National Gallery of Canada mounted a retrospective of his work. Critically well-received during his life, his Impressionistic paintings have been described as being created with a "palette of crushed jewels". He died in Miami Beach in 1939.