Norman Rosenthal was the child of Jewish refugees from Nazi occupied Europe, Rosenthal grew up in North London. After studying history at the University of Leicester he took a job for an art dealer and for a time was Exhibitions Officer at the Institute of Contemporary Arts where he promoted new work from Germany.
In 1977, he was appointed Exhibitions Secretary at the Royal Academy. In this position he curated with Nicholas Serota the exhibition "A New Spirit in Painting" that brought to the forefront work by Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer. Rosenthal also initiated a cycle of survey exhibitions of 20th Century work that promoted the Academy to the first division of exhibition venues. In 1986 Rosenthal lost out to Serota for the job of Director of the Tate Gallery.
As Exhibitions Secretary Rosenthal has often courted controversy notably in staging Sensation which drew protests from Academicians.