Born in Poland while the country was under foreign rule, Wieniawski was a member of a family which produced several remarkable musicians. Recognized as a prodigy, Wieniawski auditioned for the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine. In 1846, he received first prize in violin. Two years later, Wieniawski embarked on a career as a concert violinist, performing first in Paris and then in St. Petersburg. After achieving great success in St. Petersburg, Wieniawski returned to Paris to study composition.
Between 1851 and 1853, Wieniawski lived in Russia, giving concerts with his younger brother Joseph. In many ways the typical Romantic virtuoso, Wieniawski was also developing into a serious composer. The works published by the time he was 18 included the Polonaise in D major and the Violin Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor. A work in which musical inspiration may have been, as critics later maintained, subordinated to the virtuoso's need to demonstrate his sheer technical prowess, the Violin Concerto No. 1 nevertheless hugely impressed European audiences, launching Wieniawski's international career as a violinist-composer.
Wieniawski's career entered a new phase in 1860, when he moved to St. Petersburg. Wieniawski immediately became one of the country's principal musical figures. First violinist to the Tsar and professor of violin at the newly-founded Conservatory, he also led the Russian Musical Society's orchestra and string quartet. He exerted a tremendous influence on the Russian violin tradition; his unusual bowing style, with a stiff wrist and raised elbow, later became a trademark of Russian violinists, who, despite the seeming discomfort of the technique, kept rising to the pinnacle of violin performance. Wieniawski also matured as a composer. The Violin Concerto No. 2, composed in Russia in 1862, supports the violin with an orchestral part which, going beyond mere accompaniment, fully participates in the composition's thematic development. Also, anticipating cyclical compositional forms, Wieniawski reiterates the soulful second theme of the first movement in the final movement.
Wieniawski's Russian period ended in 1872, when he resumed his career as an international virtuoso. Following a grueling, two-year North American tour, Wieniawski returned to Europe to succeed Vieuxtemps as professor at the Brussels Conservatory. He kept that post until 1877 while maintaining his busy concert schedule. In 1878, although weakened by a serious heart condition, Wieniawski played in Paris, Berlin, and Moscow. In Berlin, on November 11, 1878, Wieniawski collapsed while performing his second violin concerto; in Moscow, on December 17, he was unable to complete his performance of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" sonata. Undaunted, Wieniawski started a Russian tour in 1879, but was taken to the hospital in Odessa. On February 14, 1880, Wieniawski was brought to the house of Tchaikovsky's patroness Nadezhda von Meck. The dying Wieniawski was also in a desperate financial situation, and friends had to raise money for a life insurance payment in order to secure the future of his family. Two months after Wieniawski's death, his youngest daughter, Irene, was born.