Nazmi Ziya was born in Istanbul and took his first art lessons from Hoca Ali Rıza. At his father's request he studied at the School of Political Sciences, but after graduating enrolled at the School of Fine Arts in 1902, where he studied under Salvatore Valeri, Joseph Warnia-Zarzecki and Osgan Efendi. In 1905 he met the famous painter Paul Signac, who was visiting Istanbul, and this meeting altered his view of art. When he graduated with a first class degree in 1908 he went to Paris to study at the Julian Academy in the studio of Jean-Paul Laurens (1838- 1921). Then he went on to attend the studio of Fernand Cormon (1845-1924) at the Paris Academy of Fine Arts. He travelled to Germany and Austria to view art in those countries, returning to Turkey after the First World War broke out in 1914. He was appointed director of Izmir Teacher Training School and went on to work as a schools inspector in Istanbul. He twice served as director of the School of Fine Arts, in 1918-1921 and 1925-1927. His work was first exhibited at the Galatasaray Exhibition.
From 1916 onwards the Ottoman Society of Painters organized the Galatasaray Exhibitions, which became the showcase for developments in the art world.
Nazmi Ziya was one of the young Ottoman artists who went to Europe to study art in 1909-1910—principally at the Julian Academy in Paris—but were obliged to return home at the outbreak of the First World War, therefore becoming known as the '1914 Generation'. Leading painters like İbrahim Çallı, Avni Lifij, Feyhaman Duran, Namık İsmail and Hikmet Onat belonged to this group which played an important part in the spread of such genres as landscape and still life in Turkish painting. One striking aspect of their work is the way their paintings reflect their own impressions and personal interpretations. Owing to their pure colours and sensitivity to light, these painters are sometimes described as the Turkish Impressionists. Almost all of them were among the first Turkish teachers at the Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul and so were active in training the next generations of Turkish artists.