Thomas Pollock Anshutz was born in Newport, Kentucky in 1851. He grew up in Newport and in Wheeling, then in Virginia, now West Virginia. He received early art instruction at the National Academy of Design in New York in the early 1870s, studying under Lemuel Wilmarth.
In 1875, Anshutz moved to Philadelphia and attended the life class taught by Thomas Eakins at the Philadelphia Sketch Club. Eakins would soon come to be a major influence and close associate of Anshutz. In 1876, both artists joined the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA); Eakins as Chief Demonstrator of Anatomy, and Anshutz as a student of Eakins and Christian Schussele. Anshutz became Eakins' assistant in 1878, and then succeeded him as Chief Demonstrator when Eakins was appointed Professor of Drawing and Painting. While he was still a student, Anshutz completed his ambitious painting Ironworkers' Noontime (1880), which was first exhibited at the Philadelphia Sketch Club in 1881 and was compared to Eakins' work by critics. 1881 was also the year that Anshutz became an instructor of drawing and painting at PAFA.
Around 1880, Thomas Eakins bought his first camera. By 1882, when he was appointed Director of Schools, he was using photography as an aid in his own artwork and as a teaching tool in his life classes. Many at the Academy got involved with photography, the cutting-edge medium of the age, a time when new photographic processes, materials, and devices were being introduced at a rapid rate and being put to new uses across many disciplines. At PAFA, Anshutz, Eakins, and others used the medium to carry out Eakins' vision of studying nature from life, posing models and students for the camera and making prints available for study.
Photography at the Academy ranged from informal photographs and class portraits to posed studies of nude or classically-dressed figures. Eakins also carried out a systematic documentation of nudes in seven pre-defined standing poses, which he called "The Naked Series." Anshutz, John Laurie Wallace, and Covington Few Seiss are known to have made photographs for this project, and Eakins himself was among the models. Around this same time, outings were organized with groups including Eakins, Anshutz, Wallace, and others, in which they photographed each other outdoors in the nude, boxing, wrestling, swimming, and in repose. Eakins used photographs from these outings in his Arcadia paintings and reliefs and in his painting, The Swimming Hole. In 1884, Eakins and Anshutz also became involved with the work of Eadweard Muybridge, who had come to Philadelphia to develop his photographic motion studies of animals and people. Eakins and Anshutz helped to build Muybridge's elaborate apparatus and took photographs for his well-known series, Animal Locomotion.
In 1886, when Eakins was dismissed from his position at PAFA for misconduct, Anshutz took over his classes and his leadership role in art instruction at the Academy. With the exception of a brief stint in Europe, teaching dominated Anshutz's remaining years, and may have earned him a more lasting reputation than his own artwork. Anshutz taught an impressive roster of American artists, many of whom would be among the vanguard of modernism in American art, including Robert Henri, John Marin, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, and George Luks.
In 1892, Anshutz married Effie Shriver Russell, and the two traveled to Paris, where Anshutz briefly enrolled in the Académie Julian and visited museums, galleries, and the Salon des Indépendants. He returned to Philadelphia in 1893 and resumed teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy. During family vacations at Holly Beach, New Jersey, Anshutz experimented with watercolors, a brighter palette, and simplified compositions. He also continued taking photographic studies of scenes from nature and transcribing them onto canvas. He made dozens of photographs of Holly Beach scenes and other marine views from an 1897 boat trip down the Delaware and Maurice Rivers. Many of these photographs were used in his watercolors and oils of that period.
In 1898, Anshutz opened the Darby School, a summer school northwest of Philadelphia that emphasized plein air painting. He ran the school with Hugh Breckenridge, a former student who had studied at the Académie Julian around the same time as Anshutz. It was in this setting that Anshutz painted his most abstract work, a series of loosely-rendered and bright oil landscapes that were never exhibited. He continued teaching at the Darby School until 1910.
Despite his openness to experimentation and his accomplishments in genre scenes and landscapes, Anshutz was best-known by his contemporaries for his portraiture. In the late 1890s and 1900s, he exhibited his portraits regularly and won several awards for them, including a silver medal at the 1904 World's Fair, the Gold Medal of Honor at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1909, and a gold medal at the Buenos Aires International Exposition in 1910. Around this time he advanced to head instructor at PAFA, was made a member of the National Academy of Design, and was elected president of the Philadelphia Sketch Club. In the fall of 1911 he was forced by ill health to stop teaching, and he died the following June.