Rubinstein was born in Vikhvatinets. He learned the piano from an early age, and made his first public appearance at the age of nine. He was taken to Paris, and then to Berlin, where he studied composition. He then moved to Vienna, where he briefly taught, before returning to Russia in 1848 where he worked as a musician to the sister-in-law of the Tsar.
He began to tour again as a pianist in the late 1850s, before settling in Saint Petersburg and founding the first Conservatoire in Russia there in 1862. He took a teaching post there, instructing Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky amongst others. He also continued to make tours as a pianist, and spent a short stint teaching in Dresden towards the end of his life.
Rubinstein died in Peterhof, having suffered from heart disease for some time.
Rubinstein was quite a widely performed composer in his lifetime, but following his death, his works were largely ignored. It has been suggested that this may be due to the fact that he was a Jew, and anti-semitism was very prevalent in Germany, the musical hub of Europe, at that time. It has also been suggested that he suffered because he did not belong to any particular music "camp": his music demonstrates none of the nationalism of The Five, and in fact he spoke out against Russian nationalism, leading to arguments with Mily Balakirev. He was also not much influenced by Richard Wagner, whose work was held in very high regard at the end of the 19th century. His music is more often compared to Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann, who were both seen as somewhat old-fashioned at the time of Rubinstein's death.
Towards the end of the 20th century, his work has been performed a little more often, and has often met with positive criticism. Rubinstein's pieces remain somewhat obscure for the time being, however. Amongst his slightly better known works as the opera The Demon, his Piano Concerto No. 4, and his Symphony No. 2, known as The Ocean.
Anton Rubinstein was the brother of the pianist and composer Nikolai Rubinstein, but was no relation to the 20th century pianist, Artur Rubinstein.