Emil Soren Carlsen, born in Copenhagen, began his studies in architecture at the Royal Danish Academy. After coming to this country in 1872 he abandoned architecture and became an instructor at the Chicago Art Institute. In 1887 he accepted the post of director of the California School of Design in San Francisco. Carlsen spent five years in California and during part of this time shared studios with Arthur F. Mathews in San Francisco and San Rafael. In 1891 he established himself in New York City, which remained his home. However he did return to San Francisco for the Pan Pacific Exposition in 1915. He also taught at the National Academy of Design and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
He was elected to the National Academy in 1906. Carlsen exhibited widely, winning honors, among them the Gold Medal in 1904 at the St. Louis Exposition, the Inness Medal at the National Academy of Design in 1907, and the Temple Gold Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1912. He was also a member of the Society of American Artists (1902) and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.