Emil Eugen Holzhauer was born on January 21, 1887 in Schwabisch-Gmund, Germany. In 1906, he moved to New York City without a job, money, or any knowledge of the English language. He initially worked in manufacturing plants to support himself and save money for art instruction. After settling into his adopted city, Holzhauer registered for night classes at the New York School of Art in 1909 where he studied with Robert Henri. Henri, a Social Realist, was a passionate and energetic teacher. He stressed the importance of painting from a personal point of view and urged his students to develop a uniquely American art, one based on their own individual experiences and perspectives. Henri remained an inspiration for Holzhauer throughout his career and the two men became close friends.

In 1913, Holzhauer attended the famed Armory Show and was inspired by the work of the American and European modernists. He held his first solo exhibition in 1915 and exhibited regularly in New York, both individually and as part of a group, over the next ten years. In the summer of 1932, he began to teach art at a summer camp in upstate New York and found teaching to be a rewarding and gratifying experience. In 1938, he briefly taught at a junior college in New York State, before moving south to Asheville, North Carolina. In 1942, he became an art professor at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia.

Throughout the 1930s, Holzhauer became identified with the American Scene movement in art, and the scenes that he painted while in the South are among his best known. The subjects were often homes and neighborhoods of the working class. The images are quiet glances into a private world. He often chose narrow side streets or back alleys and portrayed the dilapidated buildings in a simple non-judgmental way. He neither idealized his subject nor romanticized it, but rather found beauty in simple scenes from daily life. During the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Holzhauer began to move into a more expressive and less realistic style. The color became more intense and less true to nature, and his figures became more stylized.

In 1953, Holzhauer retired from his professorship at Wesleyan. He and his wife moved to Florida where he held several exhibitions. He continued to travel and paint until 1972 when his eyesight began to fail. Holzhauer died just before his hundredth birthday in 1986.