Born into a Jewish family in Krakow on 10 January 1890, Henryk Gotlib studied at the Krakow Academy of Art from 1908-10, continued his studies at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna (1911–13), then travelled widely in Italy, Greece and Spain. He developed an aesthetic affinity with various Polish avant-garde groups during the 1920s, before developing what he called the 'vision thing', with colour and form at the core of his art. He was greatly influenced by Rembrandt and the European Expressionist painters.

Following several productive years in France, Gotlib arrived in London in April 1938, where he met his future wife, Janet. They married in France, spent time together in Poland, then, after returning to England on a short visit in June 1939, became trapped by the outbreak of war. Gotlib swiftly established himself in the British art world: a passionate and perceptive writer on art, he published 'Polish Painting' in 1942, participated in the same year in the 'Exhibition of Works of Polish and Czechoslovak Artists', at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and was also a member of the London Group. Between 1945 and 49, he held three solo exhibitions at the Roland Browse and Delbanco Gallery, writing to fellow émigré Henry Roland in 1947: 'Bonnard paints atmosphere; I paint the thing itself.'

Living in relative isolation in the countryside, Gotlib died in South Godstone, Surrey on 30 December 1966. In 2017, his self-portrait featured in Emigrés: Twentieth Century Self-Portraits by Artists from Abroad at the National Portrait Gallery, London. His work is in UK collections including the Arts Council, National Portrait Gallery, Ruth Borchard Collection and Tate.