William Edward Norton was born in Boston, Massachusetts and educated in Charlestown. After a spell at sea before the mast, he graduated at the Lowell Institute in Boston and the Harvard Medical School. He then turned to painting, first as a pupil of George Innes and the studying in Rome, Paris and London. In Paris he was a pupil of Jacquesson, de la Chevreuse and Vollon, in London he exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1878 and 1901 and in America he exhibited in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Boston (three gold medals).
In 1905 and in 1906 he won the Osborne Prize for Marine Painting.