Born in Berlin of Jewish parents, Auerbach was sent alone to England in 1939 to escape Nazism; his parents later died in concentration camps. He moved to London in 1947, where he studied at St Martin’s School of Art and took night classes tutored by David Bomberg at Borough Polytechnic. He studied at the Royal College of Art from 1952 to 1955 and had his first exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, in 1956.
Auerbach’s effort to document the physical by extreme measures places his work in the context of such painters as Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, as well as Kossoff. His paintings are characterised by heavy impasto – his technique was initially criticised for being more sculptural than painterly. The subjects and intentions of Auerbach’s paintings have remained largely consistent. He has used three principal models throughout his life: his wife Julia; Juliet Yardley Mills ('J.Y.M.'), a professional model whom he met in 1957; and his close friend Estella (Stella) West ('E.O.W.'), the model for most of his nudes and female heads prior to 1973. Having kept the same studio in Camden Town since the 1950s, the surrounding area of North London is another enduring subject of his work.