Elmer Wachtel was born in Baltimore, Maryland on January 21, 1864. When he was quite young the Wachtel family moved to Lanark, Illinois where he taught himself to play the violin. At age 18, he moved to San Gabriel, California where his brother had married a sister of artist Guy Rose and was managing the Rose ranch. He continued to play the violin and in 1888 became the first violinist of the Philharmonic Orchestra.
During this period his talent in drawing and painting began to emerge and in 1900 had saved enough money to study for one year at the Art Students League under William Merritt Chase and in London at the Lambeth School. Returning to California, he lived in Los Angeles where he continued to paint.
In 1904 he married artist Marion Kavanagh and they built their home in the Arroyo Seco of Pasadena. The Wachtel's traveled all around Southern California in a specially designed motorcar built to accommodate their artistic needs. They painted and exhibited together until his sudden death on August 31, 1929. Elmer's early works were in dark and moody tones whereas, his palette later lightened and his works became more decorative.