Nathaniel Dance was born in London on 18 May 1736. His father George (1695–1768) was architect and clerk of works to the City of London.
Having trained under Francis Hayman, Nathaniel’s father sent him to Rome with his elder brother George, also an architect. His training as a portrait painter flourished in Rome where he worked under the successful and sought-after Pompeo Batoni and met and painted Angelica Kauffman (1740–1807).
In 1764 he returned to London, where he became one of the most prestigious of British portrait and history painters and was a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768. At his best he breathed new vigour into the standards of the day and the Grand Manner tradition, as can be seen in his outstanding portrait of Captain Cook (National Maritime Museum, London) painted for Sir Joseph Banks in 1775–76. This, however, was to be one of his last works; he stopped painting after inheriting a fortune and an additional name as Nathaniel Dance-Holland in 1776 and married a wealthy widow in 1783.
In 1790 he was elected a Member of Parliament and resigned from the Royal Academy. He was created a baronet in 1800 and died in Winchester on 15 October 1811, leaving a substantial fortune.