Born in Rotterdam, Holland, at the age of twelve, van der Velden went to work. However his drawing ability attracted attention and he was sent to a drawing master and then to Drawing Academy, after which he apprenticed to a lithographer, later becoming a partner in a lithographic business.
From 1864 van der Velden began painting seriously, studying and then going to Berlin on a scholarship. He became well established as a Dutch painter, becoming one of the group led by Israels. He met Van Gogh in 1883, who was impressed with his work.
In 1890, van der Velden left Holland with his family, settling in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he was sponsored by Van Asch, an established resident. In 1891 he visited Otira and the landscape there became the 'motif' for a series of his paintings. He visited Dunedin in 1892, and in 1896 started a life class , but facing financial difficulties he left for Sydney in 1898. He exhibited in Sydney, but his financial difficulties continued. His wife then died in 1899.
In 1905, van der Velden returned to N.Z., settling in Wellington where he remarried. In 1913 he became ill while visiting Auckland, and died on 11 November. He is well known for his use of dark colours (often black) in his artwork and the 'moodiness' they portray. Petrus van der Velden is represented in public and private collections in New Zealand as wel as the Art Gallery of NSW, Dienst voor's Rijks Verspreide Kunstvoorwerpen and The Hague.