Edward Bruce was born in 1879 in Dover Plains, New York. Though he enjoyed painting at a young age, he pursued a career in law and graduated from Columbia Law School in 1904. He practiced law in New York and in Manila, Philippines and was actively involved in international issues. He became president of the Pacific Development Corporation of California, was a lobbyist for the Philippine Independence Bill, and, in 1933, attended the London Economic Conference as a silver expert.
In 1923 Bruce gave up his career in law and business and began to paint, particularly landscapes. He and his wife Peggy spent the next six years in Anticoli Carrado, Italy where he studied painting from his friend and fellow artist Maurice Sterne. Bruce returned to the United States in 1929 and settled in California, exhibiting his artwork to much public and critical praise. In addition, Bruce was an avid collector of Chinese art.
In 1933 Bruce was appointed Chief of the newly established Public Works of Art Project, a federal government New Deal program within the U.S. Treasury Department, that employed artists to decorate numerous public buildings and parks. Though this federal program lasted less than a year, Bruce worked with Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., to establish the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture in 1934 - later renamed the Section of Fine Arts in 1938. Bruce was appointed Director of the department and played a primary role in securing federal government support for American artists. In 1940 he was appointed to the Commission of Fine Arts by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Bruce received many honors and awards during his lifetime both for his work as an artist and for his capable and dedicated administration of federal arts programs. Despite poor health, he continued his work for the Section of Fine Arts until shortly before his death in 1943.