Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, John Wilson Carmichael was the son of a ship's carpenter and went to sea at a young age. He completed an apprenticeship with a ship builder but then established himself as a drawing master and miniature painter. He subsequently became a successful marine painter, exhibiting work at the Royal Academy and the Society of British Artists.


In 1845 Carmichael moved to London and in 1855 he accepted a commission to cover the Crimean War for the Illustrated London News. This trip resulted in his famous painting The bombardment of Sveaborg, 9 August 1855, now in the National Maritime Museum. He spent the last years of his life in Scarborough, where he died.


Carmichael's daughter Annie married William Luson Thomas, a well-known artist, engraver and publisher, and founder of the Graphic (1869). Along with E.W. Cooke and Clarkson Stanfield, Carmichael is considered one of the three most significant Victorian maritime artists.