David van der Kellen was from an artistic family: both his father and grandfather – namesakes – were die-sinkers, medallists and graphic artists, and worked in this capacity at the Rijksmunt, or Royal Mint, in Utrecht. Young David set his own course and devoted himself to the art of painting. He went to the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam and the art academy in Düsseldorf, and joined the Dutch artist's society Arti et Amicitiae. David van der Kellen primarily painted genre scenes and interiors in romantic style. He was the director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam from 1876 until 1895.