Born in 1822 in Deerfield, Massachusetts, to a poor farming family, Fuller worked a variety of jobs but showed a talent for drawing at an early age. Fuller first became interested in painting in 1841, when he accompanied his deaf-mute younger brother, Augustus Fuller, on a painting trip through western New York. Formally pursuing this new interest, Fuller studied drawing in the Albany, N.Y. studio of sculptor Henry Kirke Brown from 1841–1842. Later that year Fuller moved to Boston and attended drawing classes at the Boston Artists’ Association, where he admired the poetic paintings of Washington Allston. After 1847 Fuller was based in New York as a portrait painter and in 1852 attained the rank of associate in the National Academy of Design. Aside from this distinction, acclaim for Fuller’s painting did not come until the last decade of his life, when the originality of treatment, richness of tone, and pictorial qualities of his works awakened widespread critical interest with a major exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1875.
Duncan Phillips long admired Fuller’s painting and wrote in A Collection in the Making (1926) “A painter of wistful dreams, of ideal heads, of shadowy fanciful figures and of subtle effects of light
in breadth of vision, in true expression of a special kind of light, in unity between conception and execution, in musical, enthralling affinity between his tone and his theme, he was moving in the direction of abstract art and was far in advance of all the other American painters of his period, even those who had studied in Paris.”