John Frederick Lewis was born in July 1804, in London. His early interest in art surely was an influence from his family, since his father Frederick Christian Lewis was a landscape painter and engraver. His uncle was Charles Lewis, the leading bookbinder at the time. His two younger brothers would become artists as well, one of them, Charles George Lewis, was a reproductive engraver, mainly after Sir Edwin Landseer’s artwork, who was a childhood neighbor of the Lewis’. John Frederick Lewis and Edwin Landseer trained together in Sir Thomas Lawrence’s workshop. Initially, their main subject was painting animals. Lewis would often include several animals in his later works, especially his pet gazelle. In 1826, Lewis published a series of prints of big cats and another of domesticated animals.
Lewis toured Europe in 1827, the same year he began painting in watercolor. He then traveled in Morocco and Spain for two years, producing several drawing that would later become published lithographs by him and other artists. He was referred to as “Spanish Lewis” in order to distinguish him from his brother Frederick Christian, who was called “Indian Lewis”. Lewis traveled extensively, some of his destinations include Italy, Greece and a sustained period in what was the Ottoman Empire. His period in the Middle East brought him the references that would make Lewis the renowned Orientalist that he is now. He would live in Cairo in a somewhat pompous lifestyle for ten years, between 1841 and 1851. This was a very prolific period, and he made very precise drawings that later would become fully realized paintings or lithographs. Lewis returned and settled back in England. His watercolor The Harem achieved public praise and critical acclaim including by John Ruskin, among other critics. He would continue to paint watercolors through the 1850s, although he went back to paint oils, much out of disappointment since oils paintings would have much higher selling price than watercolors. He would even paint two versions of the same composition, one in oil, dedicated to exhibiting at the Royal Academy and another in watercolor, in order to try a higher selling price.
In 1859, Lewis would become an Associate of the Royal Academy and a full member six years later. The artist was President of the Society of Painters in Watercolors, although he would resign, for the Society would not accept to exhibit oils paintings. John Frederick Lewis painted almost until the end of his life, in 1876 after suffering three years of ill health. He remained nearly forgotten until the 1970s when his work was rediscovered and became extremely expensive and fashionable.