Ben Nicholson was born near London to parents who were both artists; his father, William Nicholson, was a prominent painter. Nicholson briefly attended the Slade School of Fine Art in London but otherwise had no formal art schooling.
He traveled in Europe and the United States for a number of years before focusing on his art.
Nicholson initially painted landscapes and still lifes. He had his first show at the Aldelphi Gallery in London in 1922. Influenced by the Cubists, Nicholson began creating abstract paintings in the 1930s. His later paintings moved between abstract and figurative work, but always combined elegant and harmonious colors, textures and shapes.
In his fifties Nicholson began to achieve international recognition. Among other awards, he won first prize at the Carnegie International Art Exhibition in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1952, and the Ulissi Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1954. In 1968 he was awarded the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II.
Retrospectives of Nicholson's work were held at the Venice Biennale (1954), the Tate Gallery in London (1955 and 1969), the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1955), and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York (1978). Nicholson died in London.