Born in Memphis to a New York businessman, he attended the Memphis Military Academy and excelled as an athlete. After graduation, he worked in the city as a clerk for the Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railway and later as assistant bookkeeper for I.M. Darnell and Son Lumber Company. At the time, Memphis was known as the “hardwood lumber capital of the world,” benefitting from extensive clearing of acreage across the Mississippi River in the Arkansas Delta region.
In the 1890s he embarked on a semi-professional baseball career but on the turn of the new century he entered the grocery business. Not long afterwards he discovered his talent for draughtsmanship and abandoned shop keeping for studying art, first in Chicago and then in New York and Paris. He was soon established on Fifth Avenue in New York, making a good living as an artist. He married an actress, Jasmine Stone, and by the time of the Great War they and their three children were mounting highly popular theatrical productions around New York.
Van Dresser was a prolific magazine and advertisement illustrator and well-known portrait painter. He was commissioned to paint President Calvin Coolidge and the official portrait used in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first campaign for the White House.
A library of William Van Dresser’s original artwork is held at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.