Mark Gertler was born the fifth and youngest child of Austrian-Jewish immigrant parents in Spitalfields, London on 9 December 1891. During a period of economic downturn, the family was repatriated to Przemyśl, Galicia, then in the Austro-Hungarian empire (now Southern Poland), the following year. After his father's departure to seek work in America, the family lived on the brink of starvation but were eventually reunited in London in 1896. Following a brief apprenticeship at Clayton and Bell stained-glass makers, and evening classes at the Regent School Polytechnic, Gertler entered the Slade School of Fine Art in 1908, with a loan from the Jewish Education Aid Society; twice winning the Slade scholarship and leaving with another from the British Institution in 1911. He began exhibiting while still a student with Vanessa Bell's Friday Club in 1910, had a joint show with John Currie at the Chenil Galleries, Chelsea in 1912, and began showing with the New English Art Club the same year. In 1914 his work was included in the so-called 'Jewish Section', co-curated by Bomberg and Jacob Epstein at the exhibition ‘Twentieth Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements’ at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. He was turned down for military service during the First World War, firstly on the grounds of his 'Austrian' parentage, then later, after being called up in 1918 was excused active service on the grounds of ill health and not forced to publicly declare his pacifist convictions, which were instead expressed in his anti-war painting Merry-Go-Round (1916, Tate). Although offered a commission as a war artist, after an attack of depression, he left it unfulfilled.

Gertler was a leading member of the London Group from 1915 onwards, exhibited with Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop in 1917 and 1918 and participated regularly in the Goupil Salons (1915-37). He had five solo shows at the Goupil Gallery, London (1921, 1922, 1923, 1924 and 1926), but tuberculosis, first diagnosed in 1920, seriously undermined his health, frequently confining him to sanatoria: from November 1920 until May 1921, and then again, in 1925, 1929 and 1936. His work was included in group shows at the Ben Uri Gallery in 1934 and 1937 and he had six further solo shows in his final decade: at the Leicester Galleries, London (1928, 1930, 1932 and 1934) and at the Lefevre Galleries, London in 1937 and 1939; from 1934, until its closure on the eve of the Second World War, he also taught part-time at the Westminster School of Art. Suffering from ill health and depression, Gertler committed suicide on 23 June 1939. Memorial exhibitions were held at the Leicester Galleries in 1941, Ben Uri Gallery in 1944 and Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1949. Posthumous solo exhibitions have been held at The Minories, Colchester, and tour (1971), Camden Arts Centre (1992), and Ben Uri Gallery, London (1982, 2002 and 2019), with a Tate room display in 2018. His work is held in more than 40 UK collections including the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Southampton City Art Gallery, the Tate and the V&A.