Heckel was born in Dobeln, Saxony, the son of a railway engineer. Between 1897 and 1904 he attended the Realgymnasium in Chemnitz, before beginning studies in architecture at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden. He left after three terms, shortly after the foundation of Die Brucke, an artists' group of which he was secretary and treasurer. The other founder-members, also architectural students, were Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff and Fritz Bleyl. He worked in the office of the architect Wilhelm Kreis until July 1907, when he resigned to become a full-time artist.
Heckel met the other founding members of Die Brucke, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, and Fritz Bleyl, while studying architecture at the Dresden Polytechnic Institute. The foursome equally regarded architecture as a compromise with their respectable middle class parents who would have never supported them if they had wanted to study art. Heckel attended the Dresden Polytechnic Institute for only eighteen months, after which time he accepted a job as a draughtsman at Wilhem Kreis's architectural studio. He was able to use the position for the benefit of the Brucke. When the firm was asked to design an exhibition room for the lamp manufacturer Max Seifert, Heckel was able to persuade the industrialist that it was worthwhile giving wall space and displays to the Brucke for an exhibition.
As a member of Die Brucke, Heckel often filled the role of business manager, which allowed the collective to network with other upcoming artists at the time, such as the Munich-based Franz Marc. This subsequently led to greater publicity for the collective, such as their mention in the almanac of Franz Marc's own artistic coalition, the Blaue Reiter.
It is worthwhile to note that with the exception of one favorable review by Paul Fetcher in the leading Dresden newspaper Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten, the exhibition in Lobtau at the factory of the lamp manufacturer Max Seifert was considered to be a flop. In addition, Heckel's poster, no longer extant, had been barred from public display by the Dresden police. In 1906 and 1907 the Die Brucke had another exhibition in Lobtau, devoted exclusively to graphics and including a group of woodcuts by Wassily Kandinsky. Unfortunately, the group once again failed to strike a chord with the public. However, much more noteworthy and ironically also notorious, were the next three annual shows by the Die Brucke, this time held in the fashionable Emil Richter Gallery. In large, silent rooms, expensively furnished and smothered with lush carpets, the group's unconventional paintings and prints struck a foreseeably strident chord, amongst them notably a nude poster of a woman that ruffled many a complacent Dresdener.
Heckel and other members of Die Brucke greatly admired the work of Edvard Munch, and aimed to make a "bridge" between traditional neo-romantic German painting and modern expressionist painting. The four founding members made much use of the print as a cheap and quick medium with which to produce affordable art.
Primitive art was also an inspiration to the members of the Die Brucke. It was Heckel's brother who introduced the group to African sculpture, and it is noted that their acceptance of primitive art, which was to fortify decisively the expressive yearnings of European artists- Was unequivocal. It is through this style that they found a source of strength in the barbaric figures.
In December 1911, Erich Heckel moved from Dresden to Berlin. Die Brucke was dissolved in 1913. He was classified as unfit for active service during the First World War, but volunteered to serve in an ambulance unit stationed in Belgium. He managed to continue to produce work throughout the war.
In 1937 the Nazi Party declared his work "degenerate"; it forbade him to show his work in public, and more than 700 items of his art were confiscated from German museums. By 1944 all of his woodcut blocks and print plates had been destroyed. After World War II Heckel lived at Gaienhofen near Lake Constance, teaching at the Karlsruhe Academy until 1955. He continued painting until his death at Radolfzell in 1970.
Like most members of Die Brucke, he was a prolific printmaker: Dube's catalogues raisonne describe with 465 woodcuts, 375 etchings, and 400 lithographs. More than 200 of them, mostly etchings, are from the last seven years of his life.
A major retrospective exhibition, Erich Heckel – His Work in the 1920s, was held October 2004 – February 2005 at the Brucke Museum in Berlin.
In 2000, Heckel's Dangaster Dorflandschaft (Dangast village landscape) (1909) was sold for £1.21 million at Sotheby's in London.
The critic James Auer has said that Heckel's Franzi Standing ...
...in many ways encapsulates the principal virtues of the entire Expressionist movement. At once frank and respectful, daring and compassionate, it depicts a girl-woman on the cusp of adolescence, innocent and free yet, at the same time, curious and knowing.