Ernest Lawson was born in 1873 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and arrived in the United States in 1888 and settled in Kansas City. In 1891, he went to live in New York and enrolled in classes at the Art Students League, studying under John Twachtman, who introduced him to Impressionism and was the central influence of his formative years. He later continued to study with Twachtman and with J. Alden Weir at their Cos Cob, Connecticut summer art school in the 1890s. "To some degree," one art historian has noted, "Lawson was a product of the art colony movement.
Lawson visited France in 1893 and studied at the Académie Julian with Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. He practiced plein air painting in southern France and at Moret-sur-Loing, where he met the English Impressionist Alfred Sisley. In 1894, Lawson exhibited two paintings in the Salon. Lawson shared a Paris studio that year with W. Somerset Maugham, who is believed to have used Lawson as the inspiration for the character "Frederick Lawson" in his 1915 novel Of Human Bondage Back in the United States, he married his former art teacher, Ella Holman.