William Fettes Douglas had little formal training as an artist, having initially worked at the Commercial Bank, Edinburgh. He took some classes at both the Trustees Academy and the Royal Academy Schools, however, and also travelled with Alexander Fraser. Douglas's paintings reflected his interest in historical and literary themes, showing pre-raphaelite influences, and included antiquarian objects, of which he was a collector. His travels in Europe and Italy in the 1860s also influenced his work.
Douglas was a curator of the National Gallery of Scotland for five years before becoming president of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1882. He was knighted in the same year.