He was born at Fintry in Stirlingshire. At the age of thirteen he was apprenticed, along with Horatio McCulloch and Leitch the water colourist, to the landscape artist John Knox. He afterwards worked for a year as a lithographer, and was employed by a company in Cumnock, Ayrshire (Smiths of Cumnock), to paint the ornamental lids of their sycamore-wood snuff-boxes.
He studied in Edinburgh at the Trustees' Academy, where he supported himself by illustrating publications for William Home Lizars the engraver. Moving to Glasgow, he established himself as a fashionable portrait painter. In 1829 he was admitted as a member of the Royal Scottish Academy; and on the death of Sir George Harvey in 1876 he was elected president, and was knighted. From then until his death he remained in Edinburgh, where, according to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, "his genial social qualities and his inimitable powers as a teller of humorous Scottish anecdotes rendered him popular".
His great-grandson is the actor Patrick Macnee.
- Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783-2002: Biographical Index II. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Retrieved 25 September 2010.
- Bryan, Michael; Williamson, George C. (1904). "Macnee, Daniel, Sir". Bryan's dictionary of painters and engravers. vol. 3, H-M. NY: Macmillan. p. 266.
- One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Macnee, Daniel". Encyclopædia Britannica 17 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 265.