A painter of landscapes and imaginary themes, John Maxwell was born at Dalbeattie, Kirkcudbright. After studying at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) a travelling scholarship took him to France, Spain and Italy. He spent a year at the Académie Moderne, Paris, where he was influenced by the symbolists Odilon Redon and Marc Chagall.
Upon his return to Edinburgh Maxwell started teaching at ECA, a post he held on and off for the rest of his life. William Gillies, his colleague at ECA, was a life-long friend. John Maxwell became a full member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1949. He spent his retirement years at his home in Dalbeattie.