He was born in New York City.
A lawyer, he served as American ambassador to Britain and later to Spain. He spoke Spanish. He was a prolific essayist who wrote widely respected biographies of George Washington and Muhammad as well as other historical figures. He also wrote books on 15th Century Spain dealing with subjects such as Columbus, the Moors, and the Alhambra.
In 1819-1820 he published The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, which included his best known stories:Henry van Wart, and their two sons and two daughters, one of whom was his god- child, in Birmingham, England - a place which also inspired some of his other works. Bracebridge Hall, or, The Humorists, A Medley is based on Aston Hall, there.
One of the van Wart's children would later name his first- born Washington Irving Van Wart (b. 1836), whose niece in turn was called Rosalinda Irving Van Wart (b. 1874).
It is believed that the city of Irving, Texas was named after him, as are Washington Stret and Irving Street in Birmingham.
The name "Rip van Winkle" has gone into the language to describe people who awake and cannot recognize their surroundings.