Elihu Vedder was born in New York in 1836. He grew up in Cuba, where his father worked as a dentist, and on his grandfather's farm in Brooklyn. He was educated in boarding schools and by tutors, and showed an interest in drawing at an early age. He began his formal training with T. H. Matteson in New York, and went on to study with Francois-Edouard Picot in Paris and Raffaello Bonaiuti in Florence.
After studying in Europe for several years, Vedder returned to the U.S. in 1860 and settled in New York, where he worked as a commercial illustrator during the Civil War. In 1864, he was one of the artists who illustrated the first American edition of Tennyson's Enoch Arden, which was published by Ticknor and Fields. During this time, he became associated with a bohemian group of artists and writers that regularly met at Pfaff's coffee shop. Some of the earliest exhibitions of his work took place at the annual spring exhibits at the National Academy of Design from 1863 to 1865. He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1865. After the war he returned to Europe, eventually settling permanently in Italy.
In 1869 Vedder married Elizabeth Caroline Beach Rosekrans (Carrie). They lived in Rome, where Vedder earned his living by undertaking commissioned work (what he termed "duty painting") while also producing paintings on original themes and subjects, such as The Cumaean Sibyl (1875-1878) which became one of his most celebrated paintings. Vedder's wife aided him in his work by cultivating patrons and carrying out all the business correspondence. Over the years he exhibited his work in London, Paris, New York and Boston (where it was especially well-received). While achieving a certain degree of success, he struggled throughout his career to make a living as an artist.
Vedder also carried out work on commission, designing covers for Century Magazine in 1881 and illustrations for various other publications such as Harper's. He experimented in other decorative arts also, designing glass ringwork, firebacks, and tiles; apart from some commissions for glass work from Tiffany's, these other projects never really got off the ground.
Vedder made his biggest contribution to American commercial art in 1884 with his illustrations of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Exhibitions of the original drawings followed, which were well-attended by the public; he also painted and sold several pictures from the Rubaiyat drawings. In the 1890s he undertook several mural projects, including ones for the Walker Art Building at Bowdoin College and the Library of Congress.
In the early 1900s, Vedder built a villa on the island of Capri, where he spent the summers and falls while continuing to live the rest of the year in Rome. From this point on, he didn't undertake any new major paintings, but instead turned to writing and illustrating books of autobiography and verse. His books include The Digressions of V (1910), Miscellaneous Moods (1915), and Doubt and Other Things (1922).
Vedder died on January 29, 1923, at the age of 87.
This biographical note draws from Regina Soria's biography, Elihu Vedder: American Visionary Artist in Rome (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970).