Ben Nicholson was born on April 10, 1894, in Denham, England. Both his parents were painters. Nicholson attended the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1910–11, and traveled in France, Italy, and Spain between 1911 and 1914. He lived briefly in Pasadena, California, in 1917–18. His first solo show was held at the Adelphi Gallery in London in 1922. Shortly thereafter he began creating abstract paintings influenced by Synthetic Cubism. By 1927 he had developed a primitive style inspired by Henri Rousseau and early English folk art.

From 1931 Nicholson lived in London; his association with Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore dates from this period. In 1932 he and Hepworth visited Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Georges Braque, and Pablo Picasso in France. Jean Hélion and Auguste Herbin encouraged them to join Abstraction-Création in 1933. Nicholson made his first wood relief in 1933; the following year he met Piet Mondrian and married Barbara Hepworth. In 1937 Nicholson edited Circle: International Survey of Constructivist Art which he had conceived in 1935.

After moving to Cornwall in 1939 the artist resumed painting landscapes and added color to his abstract reliefs. In 1945–46 he turned from reliefs to linear, abstract paintings. Nicholson was commissioned to paint a mural for the Time-Life Building in London in 1952. He was given retrospectives at the Venice Biennale in 1954, the Tate Gallery, London, and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1955. In 1958 Nicholson moved to Castagnola in Switzerland, and began to concentrate once more on painted reliefs. In 1964 he made a concrete wall relief for Documenta III in Kassel, Germany, and in 1968 was awarded the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, organized a retrospective of his work in 1978. Ben Nicholson died on February 6, 1982, in London.