Scott was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1904 he moved to Chicago and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During his time in Chicago he painted murals around the city, one of which was Commerce, which is still lauded today as “remarkable”. He learned much of his palette and impressionist technique, however, during his travels to France. While abroad he studied at Académie Julien and Académie Colarossi and was mentored by Henry O. Tanner, a famous African American artist who moved to Paris to avoid racial prejudice against his art. Training in Paris, Scott was able to build a reputation for him more easily than his race would have allowed in America. Perhaps because of this, he seemed to be more conservative in his portrayals of the “New Negro” than others in the movement, and sometimes painted scenes that had nothing to do with race at all.
After his formal education was complete, Scott received a Rosenwald Foundation grant and traveled to Haiti to paint those who had “maintained their African heritage”. Later he traveled to Alabama to study blacks in different communities in the South. By refusing to paint blacks as only slaves and laborers (as so many before him had), Scott hoped to “reverse the stereotypical perceptions of African Americans and eventually foster an understanding among the races”. When he returned to Chicago, Scott continued with that goal as he portrayed “blacks on canvas in positions of prominence doing noble deeds” throughout the portraits and murals he created for the rest of his life.
William Edouard Scott was a major part of the transition in the depictions of blacks in art. His mentor Tanner did not push the issue of race in his work after realizing that “the European community could not be expected to understand or appreciate a theme that was distinctly American in nature”. Scott, on the other hand, was able to do what Tanner did not-he portrayed the “New Negro” for which Alain Locke would call in the 1920s. However, “He nonetheless remained conservative in his treatment of race… He steered clear of the emphatic embrace of black physiognomy”. But it was Scott’s use of subject matter that was not only positive but also inherently black that was his contribution to the New Negro movement. Through his portraits and murals, in addition to depicting religious and political themes that had nothing to do with race, Scott’s works began to cross the racial barrier and forge connections through art to the black community and the history there. However, just as Scott’s artistic style remained traditional and based on the impressionist techniques he had initially learned, his approach to race remained somewhat conservative until his death in Chicago.