He was the son of a border guard. At the age of eight, his family moved to Hannoversch Münden, which would be his home for the remainder of his life, despite many years spent elsewhere. His parents lacked the money to provide him with formal artistic training, so he obtained instruction wherever possible, especially from the local goldsmith. In 1866, thanks to the patronage of a pastor who had recognized his talents, he was able to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Nuremberg. In 1869, he went to Berlin on a scholarship. Three years later, another scholarship enabled him to study in Rome.
Upon his return to Berlin, he received significant support from Martin Gropius. Despite growing success, the next decade was difficult. His three-year-old son died in 1882, then his mother in 1888. This was followed by a divorce in 1891. A year later, he married the Countess Maria von Hertzberg, an aspiring young artist, and was appointed a Professor at the Prussian Academy of Arts the year after that.
In 1900, he came out in strong opposition to the “Lex Heinze” (which, among other things, banned the display of “immoral” art works). That same year, all but a few of his figures were removed from display at the Great Berlin Exhibition, not only because of the law but also, probably, because of his support for French and Belgian sculptors (such as Rodin and Meunier). In fact, as tensions between Germany and its western neighbors grew, Eberlein’s outspoken advocacy of peace and disarmament caused him to lose his public commissions.