Auerbach was born in Berlin, the son of Max Auerbach, a patent lawyer, and Charlotte Nora Burchardt, who had trained as an artist. Under the influence of the British writer Iris Origo, his parents sent him to Britain in 1939 under the Kindertransport scheme (although he has stated it was by private arrangement), which brought almost 10,000 mainly Jewish children to Britain to escape from Nazi persecution.Aged seven, Auerbach left Germany via Hamburg on 4 April 1939 and arrived at Southampton on 7 April. Left behind in Germany, Auerbach's parents later died in a concentration camp in 1942.

Auerbach is a figurative painter, who focuses on portraits and city scenes in and around the area of London in which he lives, Camden Town. Although sometimes described as expressionistic, Auerbach is not an expressionist painter. His work is not concerned with finding a visual equivalent to an emotional or spiritual state that characterised the expressionist movement, rather it deals with the attempt to resolve the experience of being in the world in paint. In this the experience of the world is seen as essentially chaotic with the role of the artist being to impose an order upon that chaos and record that order in the painting. 

This intensity of approach and handling has also not always sat well with the art world that developed in Britain from the late 1980s onwards, with one critic at that time, Stuart Morgan, denouncing Auerbach for espousing 'conservatism as if it were a religion' on the basis that he applies paint without a sense of irony.

As well as painting street scenes close to his London home, Auerbach tends to paint a small number of people repeatedly, including Estella Olive West (indicated in painting titles as EOW), Juliet Yardley Mills (or JYM) and Auerbach's wife Julia Auerbach (née Wolstenholme). Again a similar obsession with specific subjects, and a desire to return to them to 'try again' is discernable in this use of the same models.