Frederick Lee was born in Barnstaple, Devon, the son of Thomas Lee, a noted architect. As a young man, he served in the army, but was forced to resign due to ill health. At the age of 19, he was enrolled in the Royal Academy, and he was elected ARA in 1834. Lee was elected to full membership of the Royal Academy in 1838. He was a prolific painter, known to have produced a further ninety paintings over the next thirty years, the majority being landscapes and pastoral scenes. Scenes in Scotland and Devon were prominent subjects, though he also travelled extensively elsewhere in Britain and the continent. Some of Lee's more notable works included a series of paintings done in collaboration with Thomas Sidney Cooper and Edwin Landseer. Lee painted the landscape, with Cooper and Landseer adding the animals.
Lee was certainly influenced by John Constable, continuing to paint idealized landscacpes of a rustic genre, despite the industrial revolution going on around him. He was a successful artist during his lifetime, and his works were much in demand.
Lee retired from the Royal Academy in 1871, and was buried near Wellington in South Africa. Only one portrait of him survives, and currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
His paintings can be found in the Tate Gallery, Metropolitan Museum, Royal Academy, Norwich Castle, and Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.