He was born in Antwerp. When World War I started he was called up but was seriously wounded and was evacuated to England where he was painting mostly colorful English landscapes. After the end of the war, he went back to Antwerp to finally settle near Bruges. During this period, he focused on farmers and their land. From 1936 onwards, he began to sculpt in a monumental effort to isolate the human figure. After World War II, he was appointed director of the National Higher Institute and of the Royal Academy of Antwerp. In 1947 the Musée National d’ Art Moderne in Paris presented a retrospective exhibition of his work. He also participated in the Biennale in Venice and made important solo exhibitions around Europe.
Permeke is regarded as the main representative of the modern Flemish Expressionism. He achieved a straightforward rusticity in his rudimentary figures acting like a prophet of the Spartan harsh life.