Martin Edgar Ferrill was born in 1836 or 1837 to Matthew and Eliza Ferrill, natives of Ireland who had come to the United States before 1835 and settled in the northern division of Troy, New York, known as Lansingburgh. Lansingburgh was Ferrill's birthplace and remained his home throughout his life. On 25 March 1857 he married Delia Adams, the daughter of a local farmer. They had two children, but neither survived past early childhood. Their daughter's death at the age of three in 1863 is recorded in New York City vital statistics, which suggests that the family had traveled there in or by that year. In Lansingburgh, the Ferrills lived in an early colonial home which had formerly served as a stagecoach stop and is still standing. Martin died in this house on 17 February 1897 and was buried in nearby Oakwood Cemetery.
Little is known about Ferrill's artistic career. In Troy directories he was listed for most of his life as a brush maker, his father's trade. Later in his life his profession was recorded as "agent," a term of unknown meaning. Ferrill's death certificate gives his occupation as "artist," but it is not known just when he took up painting. To date, only four paintings by Ferrill have been discovered; all depict winter genre scenes. Winter subjects were immensely popular in the nineteenth century, and Ferrill's renderings have close parallels with lithographs published by Currier and Ives and paintings by artists known for their winter scenes. In no instance is Ferrill known to have copied another artist's work, yet similarities in feeling, composition, and motifs suggest an awareness of popular prototypes. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Chotner, Deborah, with contributions by Julie Aronson, Sarah D. Cash, and Laurie Weitzenkorn. American Naive Paintings. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 109.