Little is known of Bosch's life or training. He left behind no letters or diaries, and what has been identified has been taken from brief references to him in the municipal records of 's-Hertogenbosch, and in the account books of the local order of the Brotherhood of Our Lady. Nothing is known of his personality or his thoughts on the meaning of his art. Bosch's date of birth has not been determined with certainty. It is estimated at c. 1450 on the basis of a hand drawn portrait (which may be a self-portrait) made shortly before his death in 1516. The drawing shows the artist at an advanced age, probably in his late sixties.
Bosch was born and lived all his life in and near 's-Hertogenbosch, the capital of the Dutch province of Brabant. His grandfather, Jan van Aken (died 1454), was a painter and is first mentioned in the records in 1430. It is known that Jan had five sons, four of whom were also painters. Bosch's father, Anthonius van Aken (died c. 1478) acted as artistic adviser to the Brotherhood of Our Lady. It is generally assumed that either Bosch's father or one of his uncles taught the artist to paint, however none of their works survive. Bosch first appears in the municipal record in 1474, when he is named along with two brothers and a sister.
Hertogenbosch was a flourishing city in fifteenth century Brabant, in the south of the present-day Netherlands. In 1463, 4,000 houses in the town were destroyed by a catastrophic fire, which the then (approximately) 13-year-old Bosch may have witnessed. He became a popular painter in his lifetime and often received commissions from abroad. In 1488 he joined the highly respected Brotherhood of Our Lady, an arch-conservative religious group of some 40 influential citizens of 's-Hertogenbosch, and 7,000 'outer-members' from around Europe.
Some time between 1479 and 1481, Bosch married Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meerveen, who was a few years older than the artist. The couple moved to the nearby town of Oirschot, where his wife had inherited a house and land, from her wealthy family.
An entry in the accounts of the Brotherhood of Our Lady records Bosch's death in 1516. A funeral mass served in his memory was held in the church of Saint John on 9th August of that year.
Bosch produced several triptychs. Among his most famous is The Garden of Earthly Delights. This painting depicts paradise with Adam and Eve and many wondrous animals on the left panel, the earthly delights with numerous nude figures and tremendous fruit and birds on the middle panel, and hell with depictions of fantastic punishments of the various types of sinners on the right panel. When the exterior panels are closed the viewer can see, painted in grisaille, God creating the Earth. These paintings have a rough surface from the application of paint; this contrasts with the traditional Flemish style of paintings, where the smooth surface attempts to hide the fact that the painting is man-made.
Bosch never dated his paintings and may have signed only some of them (other signatures are certainly not his). Fewer than 25 paintings remain today that can be attributed to him. Philip II of Spain acquired many of Bosch's paintings after the painter's death; as a result, the Prado Museum in Madrid now owns several of his works, including The Garden of Earthly Delights.
In earlier centuries it was often believed that Bosch's art was inspired by medieval heresies and obscure hermetic practices. Others thought that his work was created merely to titillate and amuse, much like the "grotteschi" of the Italian Renaissance. While the art of the older masters was based in the physical world of everyday experience, Bosch confronts his viewer with, in the words of the art historian Walter Gibson, "a world of dreams [and] nightmares in which forms seem to flicker and change before our eyes." In the first known account of Bosch's paintings, in 1560 the Spaniard Felipe de Guevara wrote