Jean Theodoor Toorop was born on 20 December 1858 in Purworejo, Java, Dutch East Indies. He has so called Belanda Hitam roots (A forefather was one of the African KNIL soldiers recruited from the Gold Coast, now called Ghana). In 1872, he moved with his family to the Netherlands, where he studied in Delftand Amsterdam. In 1880 he became a student at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. From 1882 to 1886 he lived in Brussels, where he joined Les XX (Les Vingts), a group of artists centred around James Ensor. Toorop worked in various styles during these years, such as Realism, Impressionism Neo-Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.
After his marriage to an English woman, Annie Hall, in 1886, Toorop alternated his time between The Hague, England and Brussels, and after 1890 also the Dutch seaside town of Katwijk aan Zee. During this period he developed his own unique Symbolist style, with dynamic, unpredictable lines based on Javanese motifs, highly stylised willowy figures, and curvilinear designs.
Thereafter he turned to Art Nouveau styles, in which a similar play of lines is used for decorative purposes, without any apparent symbolic meaning. In 1905 he converted to Catholicism and began producing religious works. He also created book illustrations, posters, and stained glass designs.
Throughout his life Toorop also produced portraits, in sketch format and as paintings, which in style range from highly realistic to impressionistic.
Toorop died on 3 March 1928 in The Hague, Netherlands. His daughter Charley Toorop (1891–1955), grandson Edgar Fernhout (1912-1974), and great grandson Rik Fernhout continued in his artistic footsteps.