Jean Dubuffet was born in 1902 to a wine merchant family in Havre, France. After the First World War ended, Dubuffet moved to Paris to study painting but after six months, feeling unsatisfied with his university he decided to leave. He educated himself by reading the work of Dr. Hans Prinzhorn, who drew comparisons between the art of asylum inmates and the art of children. Prinzhorn believed that it was primal instinct that led to a sense of harmony and unity. This was to inspire Dubuffet greatly later in his career.
Dubuffet's first solo exhibition was held at the Galerie René Drouin, Paris, in 1944. The Pierre Matisse Gallery gave him his first solo show in New York in 1947. From 1945 he began collecting spontaneous artworks created by untrained artists, including children and psychiatric patients and he coined the term art brut, meaning “raw art” or “outsider art”. In 1948 he founded the Compagnie de l'Art Brut together with writers, critics, and dealers from Dada and Surrealist circles. The first public art brut exhibition was held at Galerie René Drouin in 1949.
A retrospective of Dubuffet’s work took place at the Cercle Volney in Paris in 1954. His first museum retrospective was in 1957 at the Schlo Morsbroich (now Museum Morsbroich), Leverkusen, Germany. Further exhibitions were held at the Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris (1960–61); Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Art Institute of Chicago (1962); Palazzo Grassi, Venice (1964); Tate Gallery, London, and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1966); and Guggenheim Museum (1966–67).
A collection of Dubuffet's writings, Prospectus et tous écrits suivants was published in 1967, the same year he started his architectural structures. Soon after he began commissions for large-scale outdoor sculptures.
Forever one to challenge conformism and mainstream culture, Dubuffet paved the way for many creative free-thinkers in the second half of the twentieth century. He died in Paris in 1985.