Hendrik Jan Wolter is considered one of the early Dutch luminists, which also included Jan Toorop and Leo Gestel. He completed secondary school and was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 1895. After completing his studies in 1899, he returned to the Netherlands and settled in Leusden. During that time he mainly painted everyday scenes of simple workers and peasant interiors in a realistic style. After his marriage to Koosje van Hoorn, the couple moved to Laren in 1904, where Wolter mainly painted en plein air. He met Jan Sluijters, Co Breman and Ferdinand Hart Nibbrig in the artists' circle around Hotel Hamdorff, but did not commit himself to any art association. In Laren the influence of French impressionists such as Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley and the Belgian luminist Emile Claus, whom he met during his studies at the Antwerp academy, becomes visible. Wolter alternates his Gooise landscapes with river views. He develops a distinctly light colour palette in a neo-impressionist, luminist style and chooses the depiction of sunlight as the main theme in his paintings. Wolter is particularly fascinated by the water and the atmosphere of cities with their lively harbours. When he leaves for Amsterdam in 1914 and starts living and working on the Amsteldijk, the scenes from which he draws his inspiration are played out before his eyes on the Amstel that he sees from his studio window. He also regularly travels to Zeeland, where he goes into the dunes with Jan Toorop to capture the Zeeland light on canvas. In 1924, Wolter was appointed professor at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam, succeeding Nicolaas van der Waay.
As a member and later chairman of the Committee for Dutch Art Exhibitions Abroad, Wolter regularly traveled to Italy, Spain, England and France, among others, between 1926 and 1938. In England he paints on the coast of Cornwall and in France he paints in ports such as Douarnenez and Honfleur. The coast in Italy also attracts him, especially the one south of Genoa. Wolter even moved to Rome in 1938, where he captured the horse races in the park at Villa Borghese on canvas and in that year he also discovered the picturesque harbor town of Camogli. However, the stay in Rome is short-lived. Due to the outbreak of the Second World War, the couple returns to the Netherlands and lives in Laren again. Wolter's last major trip was to New York, where he visited his son Henk in 1946 and painted his last cityscapes of Brooklyn and Manhattan. He has spent the last few years with his wife in the house he designed called 'Safe Haven' on the Oud Blaricummerweg in Laren. In the last years of his life his health deteriorated so quickly that he was no longer able to paint.