Grace Hartigan was born in Newark on 28 March 1922. She attended night school at Newark College of Engineering and briefly studied painting under Isaac Lane Muse. In 1945 she moved to New York where was she was influenced by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, especially the work shown in Pollock’s 1948 exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Her first works were shown in 1950–51 in New talent, an exhibition at Kootz Gallery, New York, and in Ninth Street in the same venue. Hartigan’s first solo show was held at Tibor DeNagy Gallery in 1951. In the first part of her career, she often exhibited under the name ‘George Hartigan’.

From 1952 Hartigan began to introduce figurative elements into her work and, during the 1950s, to incorporate recognisable objects into her abstract compositions, particularly fruit and apparel. Her work was shown in the Museum of Modern Art's 12 Americans in 1956 and, in Europe, in The new American painting which toured eight countries in 1958–59. Hartigan moved to Baltimore in 1959, which remained her home until her death.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Hartiganpainted in a broad, lyrical style, often using a staining technique. She taught at Maryland Institute College of Art—where she became director of the Hoffberger School of Painting in 1965—and exhibited regularly with Julian Weissman Fine Art, New York. Her work was included in the major survey Action/Abstraction shown at Jewish Museum, New York, the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, in 2008–09. Hartigan died on 18 November 2008, in Baltimore, Maryland.