Vieuxtemps was born in Verviers, Belgium, son of a weaver and amateur violinist and violin-maker. He received his first violin instruction from his father and a local teacher and gave his first public performance at the age of six, playing a concerto by Rode. Soon he was giving concerts in various surrounding cities, including Brussels where he met the violinist Charles de Bériot with whom he began studies. In 1829, Bériot took him to Paris where he made a successful concert debut, again with a concerto by Rode, but he had to return the next year because of the July Revolution and Bériot's marriage and departure on concert tour. Back in Brussels, Vieuxtemps continued developing his violin technique on his own. A tour of Germany in 1833 brought friendship with Spohr and with Schumann who compared the boy to Paganini. During the following decade he visited various European cities, impressing not only audiences but also famous musicians such as Berlioz and Paganini himself with his virtuosity. But he had aspirations of becoming a composer as well and, having already taken lessons with the respected Simon Sechter in Vienna, spent the winter of 1835-1836 studying composition with Antoine Reicha in Paris. His first violin concerto, later published as Concerto No. 2, dates from this time.
Vieuxtemps's Violin Concerto No. 1 was acclaimed when he played it in St. Petersburg in 1840 and in Paris the next year, and Berlioz found it "a magnificent symphony for violin and orchestra". Based in Paris, Vieuxtemps continued to compose with great success and perform throughout Europe and also, with the pianist Sigismond Thalberg, in the United States. He was particularly admired in Russia where he resided permanently between 1846 and 1851 as a court musician of Nicholas I and soloist in the Imperial Theatre. He also founded a violin school in the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In 1871, he returned to his native country to accept a professorship at the Brussels Conservatory where his most illustrious pupil was Eugène Ysayë. A paralytic stroke disabled his right arm two years later and he moved to Paris again, his violin class being taken over by Henri Wieniawski. Although he seemed to be gradually recovering from his stroke, another one in 1879 ended his career as a violinist for good. He spent his last years in a sanatorium in Mustapha Supérieur, Algeria, where his daughter and her husband had settled, and continued to compose, though frustrated by his inability to play or, far from the musical centres of Europe, even hear his music played by others.
The bulk of Vieuxtemps's compositions were for his own instrument, including five further concertos and a variety of short salon pieces, though towards the end of his life, when he had to give up the violin, he often turned to other instruments, writing two cello concertos and a viola sonata among other things. He also wrote three string quartets. It is because of his seven violin concertos, however, that Vieuxtemps occupies an important place in the history of the violin as a prominent exponent of the Franco-Belgian violin school. Through his own concertos and his advocacy of the concertos of Beethoven (he also played Beethoven's sonatas and string quartets) and Mendelssohn, he added a more classical dimension to the current violin repertoire which had tended towards technically brilliant but often shallow variations and fantasies on popular operatic themes. While the praises of Berlioz and others may now seem excessive, it must be admitted that Vieuxtemps had a good taste and was guided by true musicianship, never indulging in sheer virtuosity for its own sake like some of his predecessors. As a result, his concertos still stand comparison with those by Saint-Saëns, for example, while the concertos of Bériot, Rode and others have not stood the test of time.