Willard Leroy Metcalf was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1 July 1858, the only child of working-class parents. His father, a carpenter, was also a violinist; his mother, a loom tender.
He grew up in family surroundings that believed in and actively practised spiritualism; a medium predicted that the child would become a great painter. While apprenticed to a wood engraver, he attended drawing classes at the Massachusetts Normal Art School at night. Metcalf entered the studio of the landscape painter, George Loring Brown, painting with him in the White Mountains, New Hampshire, in 1875 and 1876. He attended life classes at Lowell Institute and was awarded a scholarship to the school of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he studied art under Otto Grundmann and anatomy under the direction of the eccentric American artist-physician, William Rimmer. Metcalf travelled to the Southwest in 1881 to sketch the Zuni tribe for Harper's Magazine and became friends with Frank Hamilton Cushing, ethnologist for the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1883 Metcalf went to France and enrolled in the Académie Julian under Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. He was at Pont-Aven in 1884; from 1885-1888 he was often at Grèz-sur-Loing and Giverny, where he became a friend of Claude Monet's son. Metcalf and Theodore Robinson frequently painted together. In 1886-1887 he travelled to Biskra and Tunis in North Africa.

Metcalf returned to the United States in 1888 and the following year was given a one-man exhibition at the St. Botolph Club, Boston. He taught at the Women's Art School at Cooper Union and the Art Students League and did magazine illustrations for Scribner's and Century. During the summer of 1895, he painted at Gloucester, Massachusetts. He received the prestigious Webb Prize from the Society of American Artists in 1896, the following year he joined the Ten American Painters, a group of artists disenchanted with the Society. In 1899 he painted murals for the Appellate Court Building, New York.

Metcalf visited Havana, Cuba, in 1902, gathering materials for murals which he painted for the Havana Tobacco Company store in New York. In September 1903, he married Marguerite Beaufort Hailé, whom he had been living with since 1899. Ill, drinking heavily, and without money, he lived for a period of time with his parents in Maine. The artist began painting in a more Impressionist manner, the beginning of what he termed his "renaissance." He taught evening classes at the Rhode Island School of Design to supplement his income. In 1905 he spent the summer with his wife at Florence Griswold's Holy House at Old Lyme, Connecticut. A successful exhibition of his works was held in 1906 at the St Botolph Club. In 1907, he received Gold Medals from the Corcoran Gallery and from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. While at Old Lyme that year, his wife left him, running off with his former student, Robert Nisbet, which caused at great scandal at the artists' colony.

In 1911 Metcalf married Henriette Alice McCrea; they travelled together in Europe in 1913. He joined the Century Club in 1917. By the end of 1920, he was separated from his wife; their divorce was finalised four years later. The artist, in poor health, continued to drink heavily. In 1924 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Metcalf suffered a fatal heart attack, dying on 9 March 1925. His will, which instructed his executors to destroy any paintings that would lessen his reputation, was largely ignored.

Kenneth W. Maddox