Bouts came from the Northern Netherlands. He would seem to have been born in Haarlem, but no documentation has survived to prove this. What we do know for certain is that he worked in Leuven and that a certificate issued by that town on 12 July 1476 describes him as being of foreign origin: "nativi ex patriam". We do not know when he was born, only that it must have been some time between 1410 and 1420. Nor do we know who his masters were, though the influence of Rogier Van der Weyden is so clearly visible that it seems likely he may have worked in Rogier's studio in Brussels.
He married Katherina Van der Brugghen, the daughter of a rich Leuven family, no later than 1448. She bore him four children. The two boys, Dieric II and Albert, were later to become painters like their father. The name of Bouts is first recorded in the Leuven archives in 1457. Thenceforward, it reappears in connection both with the purchase or inheritance of property and with commissions for various paintings. From this very first mention, Bouts is described as a painter: "Dieric Bouts schildere" (1457), for example, or "Theodorum Bouts pictor ymaginum " (1458).
The fact that nine years elapsed between his marriage and the first mention of his name in the city records at Leuven has led certain historians and biographers to suggest that Bouts returned to Haarlem during this time, where they see him exerting a certain influence on the Northern school of artists. Yet the available facts hardly lend credence to this hypothesis. Why would Bouts have left Leuven, a town that was just then enjoying a period of rapid economic and social expansion, and where the arts had wealthy patrons ready to hand in the person of the Dukes of Burgundy? Moreover, he had just married a young girl of that city, who had brought with her a substantial dowry. Why, in these circumstances, should he think of returning to a northern town, where the political and economic climate was still so unstable? What could he have found there to tempt an artist who had once tasted the charms of Flanders?
In late 1468 or early 1469, Bouts was appointed "official painter of the town of Leuven". He was widowed, and remarried in 1473, taking as his second wife one Elisabeth Van Voshem. He died two years later, on 6 May 1475, and was buried in the Minderbroerderkerk, the Franciscan church of Leuven, which stood close by his house.
The earliest works to have been attributed to Bouts are the three panels of the Triptych of the Virgin, in the Prado in Madrid, and various versions of the Virgin and Child. These paintings are very close in style to Rogier Van der Weyden, sometimes so close as to be virtually undistinguishable. The Prado panels set the main composition within a series of grisaille arches, which are embellished with episodes from the Old and New Testaments. The main scenes are executed in a manner that derives directly from Van der Weyden, down to the very details. Nevertheless, Bouts manages to demonstrate not only his mastery of a style, but also his own nascent originality.
It is with the Descent from the Cross, in the cathedral at Granada, that a truly personal style begins to emerge. Here, Bouts emphasizes the stark outline of the figures with their expressively elongated torsos; the result is not the dramatic eloquence of Rogier, but a meditation on the interiority of emotion. The space around the figures is deliberately left empty so as to intensify the atmosphere of silent contemplation and draw attention to the monumentality of the images. Bouts was steeped in a mystical sense of religion. He went on to paint a "Salvator coronatus" - now known only from copies - in which he again drew his inspiration from Van der Weyden. But his Christ is closer to the Christ of the Rhenish mystical writer Thomas Hemerken (1379-1471) than to any of Van der Weyden's prototypes. Hemerken is generally held to be the author of the Imitation of Jesus Christ, a vast spiritual treatise that was one of the key texts of the 'devotio moderna' movement.
In the National Gallery Entombment, Bouts took Van der Weyden's model and totally transformed its meaning. The folds in the cloth are heavier and more rounded, and where they break, the effect is altogether less violent. The gestures are more peaceful and the painting is able to transcend the pathos of the scene, so that the central emotional focus is now the intense concentration that can be read in the gazes of the different figures. Christ's head is properly ecstatic: on his brow is the crown of thorns, his eyes are closed and his mouth is half open. The figures gathered around the tomb seem suspended between grief and astonishment. The gently rolling countryside, dotted with the occasional small tree, stretches away into the distance, its tranquillity merely heightening the sense of desolation.
Dieric Bouts has sometimes been referred to simply as a portrait painter, so exceptional were his achievements in this genre. His Portrait of a Man, in the National Gallery in London, dated 1462, is an absolute masterpiece for example.
Besides the remarkable Portrait of a Man, few of Bouts's paintings can be attributed to him or even dated with any great certainty. Of those that can, the three most important pieces are the Triptych of the Martyrdom of St Erasmus, in the collegiate church of St Peter in Leuven, the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament, in the same church, and the diptych The Justice of Emperor Otto III, in the Brussels Musée royal des Beaux-Arts.
The central panel of the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament is given over to The Last Supper. It is one of the key works in the history of Flemish art. Here, Bouts breaks with the tradition according to which Christ is always represented in the act of announcing the betrayal of Judas. Instead, he chooses to show the moment at which he institutes the Eucharist. On the four side panels are biblical episodes which prefigure the sacrament.
The diptych The Justice of Emperor Otto III belongs to the genre of the justice scene. It was painted by Bouts towards the end of his life for the council room in the town hall at Leuven, which had been completed in 1460.
A fifth documented work by Bouts, a triptych of the Last Judgment, has unfortunately not survived. On the other hand, the Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich), a small-scale work traditionally known as the Pearl of Brabant, on account of its extraordinary beauty, which had for centuries been attributed to Dieric II, Bout's son, has recently been attributed to Bouts the Elder.