Josef Herman was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1911 to a working-class Jewish family. Herman left school aged 13 and took on various jobs, most notably working as a typesetter and then graphic designer. After a fleeting spell at the Warsaw School of Art and Decoration (1930-1) Herman embarked as an artist on his own, holding his first exhibition in 1932. In 1938 at the age of 27, Herman left Poland and arrived in Brussels for a short period before having to flee the Nazis to France and then to Britain.
Herman arrived in Glasgow in 1940 in the company of fellow Polish artist Jankel Adler and sculptor Benno Schotz. While in Glasgow, Herman produced a body of work known as Memory of Memories, nostalgic drawings depicting various scenes of family life, Jewish customs and the everyday street life of his native city. Tragically in 1942 the Red Cross delivered the news to Herman that his whole family had been murdered by the Nazis. Despite this trauma, Herman still managed to produce work which connected to his heritage even after leaving Scotland in 1943.
After Glasgow, Herman and his first wife Catriona spent a short period in London before discovering the small mining town of Ystradgynlais in Wales. Herman made Ystradgynlais his home for 11 years and quickly integrated as an important member of the community. During his time there, the miners, their families and their way of life became the subject of his work. Herman had great respect for their physical labour and captured them in a bold and heroic manner. Herman was especially captivated by the sunset in Wales and reflected this in his work with the miners seeming to glow and are often bathed in a radiant red and gold light. In 1951, Herman was commissioned to paint a mural for the festival of Britain, in which he chose to present six Welsh miners in a moment of rest (currently in the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery Collection).
Herman eventually left Ystradgynlais in 1955, taking his distinct style and applying it to various other subjects while maintaining a strong focus on the dignity of physical toil. This included the fishermen in Suffolk where he lived for a number of years. He also travelled and produced work in Mexico, Israel and Spain. In 1981 he was awarded an OBE for his services to British Art and in 1990 he became a Royal Academician.