The son of a Montpelier, Vermont cabinetmaker, Thomas Waterman Wood determined his life’s course at an early age. He first pursued studies in portraiture with Chester Harding in Boston and then established a New York portrait studio in 1853. Beginning in 1855, Wood worked as an itinerant painter in Quebec, Washington, DC, and Baltimore until 1858, when he and his wife departed for a year-long sojourn in Paris. While abroad, the artist copied old masters and refined his technique before returning to America in 1859.

Executed from his new home in Nashville, Tennessee, Wood’s best-known painting—an 1861 depiction of enslaved people titled Southern Cornfield—heralded the start of his career as an artist of “sensitive portrayals of southern blacks, free blacks in the North, and black soldiers from the Civil War.” With Nashville under increasing threat from Union forces, Wood relocated to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1863, where, for a time, he specialized in highly-detailed portraits of children set against lush backgrounds. It was an encounter in Louisville—the sight of an African American Civil War veteran struggling to cross the street on one leg—that inspired an important series of three canvases (collectively called “War Episodes” and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) documenting the transition from slavery to freedom. Created at a time of flux in the role of American genre painting, Wood's images of emancipated African Americans have powerful allegorical undercurrents and document the quest of the oppressed to establish identity in a shifting world. Like many of these latter pictures, The Apple Vendor depicts a person of color, imbued with dignity, working to make a living.

Wood returned to New York in 1866 and focused almost exclusively on genre scenes with African American themes. Named an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1869 and elevated to full academician in 1871, Wood was later elected president of the academy in 1891. From 1878 to 1887, he served as president of the American Watercolor Society.