Johannes Warnardus Bilders spent most of his life in Oosterbeek, Gelderland. Born in Utrecht in 1811 as the son of a baker's assistant, he was the only one in the family with artistic aspirations. He studied drawing at the Vaktekenschool in that city. He interrupted this training in 1830, when he served as a volunteer soldier for a few years during the Belgian Revolution. After his return, he picked up the drawing lessons again and married the German Frederika Staudenmeijer in 1934.
Bilders never had a lesson in painting, he studied the work of famous romantic artists of his time such as B.C. Koekkoek. He also made study trips to Germany to discover the river landscape of Rhine and Ahr, and he visited Wiesbaden - where he visited King William III - and the Black Forest. Bilders first came to Oosterbeek near Arnhem in the summer of 1841, where the varied landscape with its views, old oak and beech forests and moors attracted painters. A few years later the Bilders family settled in the village and then lived alternately in Utrecht, Amsterdam and Oosterbeek. The hospitable Bilders became the hub of a group of young painters who followed his example and came to work in the countryside in the vicinity of the picturesque village. The first Dutch painter's talent, the Oosterbeekse School, was created there. Several of these artists, including Constant Gabriel, Anton Mauve and the brothers Jacob, Matthijs and Willem Maris, were later part of the Hague School.
Bilders and his wife had three children, including son Gerard, who, like his father, became a painter and would also develop into an important predecessor of the Hague School. People liked to come to Bilders home, the hospitable painter always had a good story with some drinks. He also organized an annual party at the Wodanseiken in Wolfheze, during which newly arrived colleagues were baptized in the Wolfhezerbeek and addressed by Bilders from an upside-down wheelbarrow.
In 1858 Bilders moved to Amsterdam, where he joined Hendrik Willem Mesdag, who had taken lessons with him, and Johannes Bosboom joined the artists' association Arti et Amicitiae. But every summer Bilders returned to Oosterbeek to make his studies there in nature, looking for moods in nature and a new, looser brushwork with lighter colors, to capture the impression on the canvas. From the late romantic painters it was Bilders who took the first step towards this freer way of painting. In 1860, during an exhibition in Brussels, which he visited with his son Gerard, he became one of the first Dutch painters to become acquainted with the Barbizon School. In that village in the woods of Fontainebleau near Paris, 'en plein air' was painted directly after nature from 1830 onwards. Bilders adopted the way of working of his French colleagues, possibly through Willem Roelofs who visited Barbizon early on, and applied the paint in a daring, loose, impressionistic touch. Bilders regularly took part in exhibitions, together with his son Gerard, not only in the Netherlands but also in Europe and Philadelphia and was appointed a knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion.
In 1861 Bilders' wife Frederika and his son Gerard died 4 years later, both of tuberculosis. Bilders decided to take his inspiration elsewhere and visited Vorden, returning and working there every summer for ten years. There he met the much younger Maria Phillippina van Bosse, daughter of the liberal politician Pieter van Bosse, who took lessons with him and later became his second wife. As a daughter of wealthy parents, Marie wanted not only to draw and paint from a hobby, but to become an independent artist. She and Bilders moved to Oosterbeek after their marriage in 1880. There they would be together for another 10 years and Marie had a number of very productive years, before Bilders died in 1890.