He was born in East Lothian. He took up painting while working as a grocer's apprentice, then attended the Royal Scottish Academy Schools and studied afterwards in Paris and Greece, he learnt more from practice and personal observation than from school training. The remarkable colour-sense which is so notable a feature of his work, whether in oils or in watercolour, came to him during his adventurous travels in Persia, Egypt and Turkey from 1880–82, where he by no means stuck to the major cities, travelling alone on long inland journeys. To convey strong Middle Eastern light, he developed a technique of using watercolour on a base of wet paper with gouache applied to it.
Melville, though comparatively little known during his lifetime, was one of the most powerful influences in the contemporary art of his day, especially in his broad decorative treatment with water-colour, which influenced the Glasgow Boys. Though his vivid impressions of color and movement are apparently recorded with feverish haste, they are the result of careful deliberation and selection. He was at his best in his watercolors of Eastern life and color and his Venetian scenes, but he also painted several striking portraits in oils and a powerful colossal composition of The Return from the Crucifixion which remained unfinished at his death in 1904. The Victoria and Albert Museum has one of his watercolours, The Little Bull-Fight Bravo, Toro! and others, like An Oriental Goatherd in the Weimar Museum, are in many museums, especially in Scotland. But many of his pictures remain with private collectors.
A comprehensive memorial exhibition of Melville's works was held at the Royal Institute Galleries in London in 1906.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Melville, Arthur". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Caw, James Lewis (1912). "Melville, Arthur". Dictionary of National Biography (2nd supplement). London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- Brickley, Chris. "Melville, Arthur (1855–1904)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34983. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Arthur Melville online (ArtCyclopedia)
- Biography of & artworks by Arthur Melville at the Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries, Scotland virtual representation of the Gracefield Arts Centre's Permanent Collection at exploreart.co.uk
- Passion and intrigue of an Eastern love affair - Arthur Melville's watercolours (The Independent, 13 August 1996)
- Paintings by Melville (Bridgeman Art Library)
- The Sapphire Sea (watercolour, 1892 - The Scottish Gallery)
- After the Play (Chalk - Christie's)