Despite his bohemian character, Isidre Nonell was born into a relatively wealthy Catalonian family. He began his artistic training when he was only twelve years old, attending drawing classes at Josep Mirabent’s academy and, a bit later, at those held by Gabriel Martínez Altés. In 1888 en enrolled in the Escuela de Aplicación located in the Llotja building and later, along with his friend Joaquín Mir, he received instruction in the studio of the painter Lluís Graner, where the models, humble, disowned, poor street people, left a lasting impression and would become the protagonists of his work.
In 1890 he took part in Exposició General de Belles Arts (General Exhibition of Fine Arts) in Barcelona, which was followed by a group exhibition at Sala Parés, on account of which he gained his first review. During this period he began his graphic work at La Vanguardia, with drawings of popular people and scenes which he returned to later in publications such as La Saeta and Barcelona Cómica. He was enrolled at the Escuela de la Llotja (Llotja School) during academic years 1893-1894 and 1894-1895, alternating classes with painting sessions in the suburbs and countryside around Barcelona along with Mir, Pichot, Canals and Vallmitjana. With them he formed the group Colla del Safrà (Saffron Group), which owed its name to a palette of “yellow tones” and which would specifically influence the painter’s work.
During the summer of 1896 he left for Caldes de Boí with Canals y Vallmitjana where he made a series of drawings of inhabitants in the valley who were affected by cretinism; figures of deformed beings who would be present throughout his career. The following winter he moved to Paris with Canals and was enthralled by French painting. He submitted several works to group exhibitions; specifically, in 1897, in the XV Exposition des peintres impresionistes et symbolistes (Exhibition of impressionist and symbolist painters), along with Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin.
He cut short his stay in Paris to travel to Barcelona and take part in the meetings of the modernist group which met at Els Quatre Gats cafe. He moved back permanently to the Catalonian city in 1900, dedicating himself to painting and leaving drawing in the background. He updated his pictorial language dominated by imagination, focusing on the the representation of gypsies and other socially marginalized women. From 1907, the default image in his work changed significantly: he was now starting to show figures in profile, with elaborate hairstyles and showing their faces.
In 1910 he exhibited at the Galeries del Faianç Català in Barcelona with resounding success in terms of sales and in critical acclaim. It was his first solo exhibition of paintings since 1903 and with it he ended a period of rejection and misunderstanding between the public and the critic. Thus began, with a less gloomy palette, a new and successful stage which was ended in 1911 by his premature death from typhoid fever.