Robert Bruce Crane was born in New York City on October 17, 1857. The son of Solomon Bruce Crane and Leah Gillespie, he was educated in New York's public schools and was exposed to the city's galleries and museums by his father, himself an amateur painter. By the age of seventeen, Crane had moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he was employed as a draftsman by an architect and builder.
He soon decided to devote his career to painting, and about 1876 or 1877 sought the guidance of the landscape painter Alexander H. Wyant, with whom he subsequently shared a close friendship until Wyant's death in 1892.
Between 1878 and 1882, Crane attended the Art Students League in New York and traveled to Europe for further study. In the United States during this period, he painted in New Jersey; East Hampton, Long Island; and the Adirondacks. He wrote to his father from the Adirondacks that among the influential painters working nearby at the time were Eastman Johnson, George and James Smillie, and Samuel Coleman, and he described the dramatic terrain: "Went to the famous Rainbow Falls which several artists have tried to paint . . . Wyant and Hart among them . . . over the top comes tumbling the water which strikes every few feet throwing a spray which catches the sun giving a most charming as well as wonderful appearance.