Gerald Kelly was born in London and studied at Eton College and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Having decided to become an artist but with no formal art training, he moved to Paris where he met, amongst others, Cézanne, Monet, Degas and Rodin. Whistler was also an early influence, particularly his landscapes. He became lifelong friends with the writer, W. Somerset Maugham, whom he later painted several times. He was also regularly portrayed in Maugham’s works. He became a member of the Salon d’Automne in 1904 and, after receiving the patronage of Hugh Lane, he was elected an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy four years later. Following a year spent in Burma, he settled in London in 1909 and in 1920 he married Lilian Ryan who modelled for him regularly. Two years later, having become well established as a portrait painter, he was elected associate of the Royal Academy, where he exhibited over 300 works in his lifetime, becoming a Royal Academician in 1930 and president in 1949. He was also a Royal Hibernian Academician, an honorary Royal Scottish Academician, a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects as well as receiving honorary degrees from the University of Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin. He received his knighthood in 1945.
Kelly painted numerous portraits in his lifetime, including several of his wife and state portraits of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. He travelled extensively in Spain, America, South Africa and Burma and is also known for his many portrayals of Asian dancing girls. He is represented in many public collections, including the Tate, which holds seven of his works.