After entering the Royal Academy as a student in 1826, Redgrave was elected a Fellow in 1851. He was among the first British painters to turn to realistic social subjects in the 1840s; among these are The Emigrant's Last Sight of Home with a family bidding farewell to the English countryside, Going Into Service, The Seamtress, and The Poor Teacher. He painted Ophelia Weaving Her Garlands in 1842, about the time that he was turning to this realism that sometimes borders on criticism of nineteenth-century economic and social realities.
With his brother Samuel he published A Century of Painters (1866), a study with valuable insights into nineteenth-century art and some of the painters who contributed paintings on Shakespeare.
Susan Casteras and Ronald Parkinson edited a collection of essays entitled Richard Redgrave 1804-1888 (Yale University Press, 1988) to accompany an exhibition (1988) of Redgrave's works at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Yale Center for British Art.