Emil Carlsen (1853–1932) was born in Copenhage, Denmark. He studied architecture at the Danish Royal Academy between 1868 and 1872. He emigrated to America in 1872, settled in Chicago, and found work as an assistant to a local architect. For a time he also worked for a fellow Dane, the painter Lauritis Bernhard Holst (1848-1934). When Holst returned to Denmark in 1874, he turned his studio over to Carlsen, who had by this time decided to become a full-time painter. Upon the recommendation of the Chicago sculptor Leonard Wells Volk (1828-1895), Carlsen was appointed the first instructor at the newly formed school of the Art Institute.
In 1875 Carlsen returned briefly to Denmark and then went to Paris, where he stayed for six months. While there, he carefully studied the works of the eighteenth-century painter Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). Returning to New York in 1875, the artist set up his own studio, but he had to supplement his meager income from painting by working as an engraver and designer. In 1879 financial difficulties forced him to hold an auction of thirty of his works, but the proceeds did not even cover the sale's expenses.
In the early 1880s Carlsen began to develop a reputation as a still-life painter. Commissioned by a dealer to paint saleable flower pieces, he returned to Paris in 1884, where he remained for two years, painting numerous brightly-colored pictures. Eventually, he grew tired of this repetitious work and broke the contract he had made with the dealer. Carlsen went back to New York and opened a studio on West 57th Street. He worked there until 1887, when he began a two-year tenure as director of the San Francisco Art Association's school. He resigned this post in 1889 but remained in San Francisco until 1891.
Carlsen again settled in New York in 1891 and began teaching at the National Academy of Design, where he would continue as an instructor until 1918.
Although he was considered to be one of the most respected American painters, Carlsen struggled financially for the first several decades of his career. The Macbeth Gallery in New York was the first gallery that specialized in the work of American artists. After Carlsen joined the gallery, which represented many of the American Impressionism artists, his sales improved and for the first time he was able to live comfortably without constant financial stress. He had solo exhibitions at Macbeth in 1912, 1919 and 1921 and 1923.
He received the Samuel T. Shaw Purchase Prize at the National Academy of Design.