Maxwell Bates was born in Calgary on December 14, 1906.
He studied under Lars Haukaness at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art in Calgary, from 1926 to 1927. However, Bates was mainly self taught. He and W. L. Stevenson paired up to study impressionist and post-impressionist painting. They met twice a week to discuss what they learned about French painting. In 1928, Bates' abstracts first appeared. In that year, because their pieces were too modern, Bates and Stevenson were banned from exhibiting with the Calgary Art Club. In 1929, Bates and Stevenson made a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago to study impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, the work of Cezanne, Seurat, Van Gogh, and Monet.
In 1931, Bates went to England to study painting and architecture. From 1932 to 1939, he was a member of the "Twenties Group". When World War II broke out, he enlisted with the British Army; he served from 1940 to 1945.He was imprisoned and his book A Wilderness of Days describes his experience. After the War ended, he returned to Calgary for a short time. In 1949 he attended the Brooklyn Museum Art School, until 1950.
Bates collected Japanese colour prints. He also developed an interest in the philosophy of art, and wrote a series of articles about it in "Canadian Art" and other periodicals. His drawing was influenced by Michelangelo and Rembrandt, and his painting by Goya, Daumier, J.L. Forain, and post-impressionism. His street scenes, landscapes, still lifes are romantic. He primarily worked with oil, watercolour, chalk, and pen and ink. He also produced lithography. Bates, with A.W. Hodges, co-designed St. Mary's Cathedral in Calgary. He was also a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art .
He passed away in Victoria in 1980.