Elbridge Ayer Burbank was born in Harvard, Illinois and graduated from the Chicago Art Academy. He worked from a studio in St. Paul Minnesota, and painted scenery for Northwest Magazine to inspire homesteading along the railway line of the Northern Pacific. This job took him west to the Rocky Mountains, Idaho, Washington, and Montana.
In 1887 and 1889 to 1891, he studied art in Munich, Germany, where he became friends with artists Joseph Henry Sharp, William R. Leigh and Toby Rosenthal. Following this, he briefly had a portrait studio in London, England, and then he returned to Chicago where in 1892, he had his first exhibition. Among the works were portraits including Portrait of a Woman, Munich, 1892 that was positively reviewed by a writer for the Chicago Tribune. Because the work was formal and characteristic of society portraiture of that era, it is suggested that Burbank was trying to attract portrait commissions.
In 1894, Burbank became an American citizen, and graduated from the Chicago Art Institute where he was invited to teach. he spend many summers painting in Giverny, France, the home of Impressionist Claude Monet. Burbank's Giverny paintings were typical Giverny subjects of women in outdoor landscapes. In 1898, he experienced a great turning point in his life as a result of a special commission from his uncle, Edward Ayer, who was the first president of the Field Columbian Museum and owner of one of the most complete libraries on Indian Culture. Ayer hired his nephew to do portraits of prominent Indians of that time. On this assignment, Burbank traveled west again, and in Ganado, Arizona, met trading post owner Lorenzo Hubbell who became a life-long friend. During his western trips, he painted over 2000 portraits of Indians from 125 tribes; 1000 were oil portraits and 1200 were with Conte Crayon. He was one of the few artists to use crayon as a medium for portraits. Burbank was the only artist to paint Geronimo from life, and he also painted Red Cloud and Chief Joseph. The collection of paintings from these western travels is in the Newberry Library in Chicago and another large collection is held at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
From 1900, he traveled constantly in the West and divided his time between New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma and California. He spent much time at the Hubbell Trading post, writing in a letter: "Whenever I am away from Ganado, I always feel away from home. I am happier there than any place I have been to." It is thought that it was his influence that stirred Hubbell's interest in art, which in turn, led to him forming an art collection that remains at the Trading Post in the Hubbell private home. Work by Burbank comprises about one-third of the collection. He also painted numerous navajo rug designs fro Hubbell, who then used them as samples for commissioning rugs to sell.