Xu began studying classic Chinese works and calligraphy with his father Xu Dazhang when he was six, and Chinese painting when he was nine. In 1915, he moved to Shanghai, where he made a living off commercial and private work. He traveled to Tokyo in 1917 to study arts. When he returned to China, he began to teach at Peking University's Arts school at the invitation of Cai Yuanpei.
Beginning in 1919, Xu studied overseas in Paris at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, where he studied oil painting and drawing. His travels around Western Europe allowed him to observe and imitate Western art techniques. He came back to China in 1927 and, from 1927 to 1929, gained a number of posts at institutions in China, including teaching at National Central University (now Nanjing University) in the former capital city Nanjing.
In 1933, Xu organized an exhibition of modern Chinese painting that traveled to France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and the Soviet Union. During World War II, Xu traveled to Southeast Asia, holding exhibitions in Singapore and India. All the proceeds from these exhibitions went to Chinese people who were suffering as a result of the war.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Xu became president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and chairman of the Chinese Artists' Association. He died of a stroke in 1953.
Xu Beihong was a master of both oils and Chinese ink. Most of his works, however, were in the Chinese traditional style. In his efforts to create a new form of national art, he combined Chinese brush and ink techniques with Western perspective and methods of composition. He integrated firm and bold brush strokes with the precise delineation of form. As an art teacher, he advocated the subordination of technique to artistic conception and emphasizes the importance of the artist's experiences in life. Of all of the Painters of the modern era, it can be safely said that Xu is the one painter most responsible for the direction taken in the modern Chinese Art world. The policies enacted by Xu at the beginning of the Communist Era continue to control not only official Government Policy towards the arts, but they continue to direct the overall direction taken in the various Art Colleges and Universities throughout China.
After his death in 1953, a Xu Beihong Museum was established at his home in Beijing.