|He was born in Rome to the painters William and Isabela Waterhouse, but when he was five the family moved to South Kensington, near the newly founded Victoria and Albert Museum. He studied painting under his father before entering the Royal Academy schools in 1870. His early works were of classical themes in the spirit of Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton, and were exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Society of British Artists and the Dudley Gallery.
In 1874, at the age of twenty-five, Waterhouse submitted the classical allegory Sleep and His Half-Brother Death to the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. The painting was very well received and he exhibited at the RA almost every year afterwards until his death in 1917. In 1883 he married Esther Kenworthy, the daughter of an art schoolmaster from Ealing who had exhibited her own flower-paintings at the Royal Academy and elsewhere. They had two children, but both died in childhood. In 1895 Waterhouse was elected to the status of full Academician. He taught at the St. John's Wood Art School, joined the St John's Wood Arts Club, and served on the Royal Academy Council.