Vanderbank was born in London, the eldest son of John Vanderbank Snr, a Huguenot tapestry weaver, who had been born in Paris but forced to flee to Holland before coming to England where he became head of a Soho tapestry weaving factory.
Vanderbank studied under Sir Godfrey Kneller at James Thornhill's art academy in Great Queen Street from 1711 until 1720, when he joined with Louis Chéron to found his own academy in St Martin's Lane. The venture proved a failure, and in 1729 he went to France to avoid his creditors. On his return he entered "the liberties of the Fleet" – mansion houses near Fleet prison, London, in which certain privileged prisoners could serve out their sentences in return for payment.
It was noted by George Vertue that "only intemperance prevented Vanderbank from being the greatest portraitist of his generation." He died of tuberculosis in Holies Street, Cavendish Square, London, on 23 December 1739 (aged 45) and was buried in Marylebone church.