John Williamson was born in Toll Cross, near the city of Glasgow, Scotland. He immigrated to the United States with his family in 1831 and settled in Brooklyn, New York. Williamson studied at the Graham Art School and the Brooklyn Institute. He made his exhibition debut at the National Academy of Design in 1850 and continued to contribute paintings to its annual exhibitions for the next thirty-five years. He was a founding member of the Brooklyn Art Association, and served as that organization’s first secretary.
Noted for his landscapes in the Hudson River School style, Williamson traveled up the Hudson to Lake George, painting along the way in the Catskills and Adirondacks. He also traveled throughout New England and painted in the Berkshire, White, and Green Mountains, as well as the Mohawk and Connecticut River valleys. During the early 1860s, he developed an interest in painting still life, favoring lilacs, morning glories, cherries, and raspberries. Around 1870 Williamson was in the West, where he painted works such as Mouth of the Yellowstone (formerly collection of Dr. Elliot Vesell, Hershey, Pennsylvania) and Overland Route to the Rocky Mountains.
Williamson was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1861. Many of his paintings show his awareness of the work of Thomas Cole and Sanford Robinson Gifford. He exhibited at New York venues, including the National Academy of Design, American Art-Union, and the Brooklyn Art Association, as well as in Boston and Washington D.C. Williamson’s work can be found in such public collections as the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York; the Maier Museum of Art, Randolph College, Lynchburg, Virginia; and the Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York.