Sidney Robert Nolan was born on 22 April 1917 in Melbourne to Sidney and Dora Nolan. At the age of 14 Sidney Nolan left school and enrolled in the crafts and design course at Prahran Technical College. Two years later in 1934, Nolan enrolled at the National Gallery School where he received a traditional education, learning to paint plein air paintings. Finding this environment controlling and limiting, Nolan began to look for a more stimulating environment, the public library next door was such a place. 

Immersing himself into the local Melbourne art scene, Nolan met the greatest supporters of contemporary art at the time, John and Sunday Reed. This relationship, especially with Sunday, would prove to be one of the most influential of his career.

With the Reed's encouragement Nolan moved into the Reed's house, Heide, leaving wife and young daughter, Amelda. Nolan became romantically involved with Sunday, a relationship continuing until 1947. In 1942 Nolan was drafted in the army and stationed in the Wimmera. His paintings of this period tell of a sad and isolated existence. Fearing the possibility of being transferred to New Guinea, Nolan eventually deserted his post, returning to Heide. 

In the mid 1940s Nolan, via the Reeds, became involved with the Angry Penguins, experimenting with what was to become one of his favourite mediums, Ripolin enamel paint. Still considered a deserter, Nolan turned his attention to another figure in Australian history known for his clashes with the law, Ned Kelly, producing his iconic Ned Kelly series in 1947 (now housed in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra). Ned Kelly was a subject Nolan returned to again and again throughout his career, possibly never forgetting his personal experience as a man against the establishment. 

After leaving Sunday Reed in 1947, Nolan moved in with John Reed's sister, the couple marrying in 1948. That same year Nolan faced his wartime desertion and obtained a dishonourable discharge from the Army and in 1951, Cynthia and Sidney travelled to Europe for the first time, settling in London in 1953. It was in London where Nolan established himself in the international art market, exhibiting at the prestigious Whitechapel Gallery in 1957.

The following years saw Nolan go from strength to strength. Awarded an OBE in 1963 and made a Knight Bachelor in 1981, several retrospectives followed including the 1967 retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and a touring national exhibition in 1987.