Grace Hartigan was born in 1922 in Newark, New Jersey. After completing high school, she moved to Los Angeles, California, where she took her first drawing class. She returned to New Jersey in 1942 and studied mechanical drafting. During wartime, she worked in an airplane factory and painted watercolor still lifes in her free time.
Hartigan moved to New York in 1945 and was one of the first young artists to admire Abstract Expressionism at a time when few took notice of the contemporary American art. She also became interested in the works of the European old masters, such as Raphael, Caravaggio and Rubens.
In 1959 Hartigan was the only female artist to be included in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “The New American Painting”, which was sent to eight European countries. Hartigan moved to Baltimore, Maryland during the 1960s.