Born to a middle class family in the industrial city of Norrköping in Eastern Sweden. Einar Nerman was the brother of Swedish Communist party leader Ture Nerman.

In 1905, Nerman moved to Stockholm to pursue his love of art. He was curious to travel, see the world and learn more about art and three years later, he moved to France where he studied with Matisse at the Academie Matisse in Paris. Returning to Sweden in 1912, he started studying music and taking dance lessons.
In the 1920s, Nerman lived in London and from 1922 to 1930, he was the theatre cartoonist for The Tatler. During World War II, Nerman was based in New York where he worked for the Journal-American.

Einar Nerman illustrated several books by Selma Lagerlöf, author of Gösta Berlings Saga and the first woman to win the Nobel prize for literature. Nerman made some famous drawings of Greta Garbo, one of which was used on a postage stamp in 2005 to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth. Nerman is perhaps best known in Sweden today as the illustrator of the art on the iconic Solstickan matchbox which was inspired by his drawing of Thumbelina for Hans Christian Andersen's book of fairytales.