Marcel Jean was born in 1900 in La Charité-sur-Loire. He studied at the École nationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and in 1924 moved to the United States to work as a textile designer. Two years later Jean returned to Paris, where he matured an interest in Surrealism and subscribed to the journal Révolution surréaliste directed by André Breton. He joined the movement in 1933, when he befriended the Surrealists Breton, Paul Eluard, Benjamin Péret and René Crevel. From that moment onwards he participated in Surrealist meetings, exhibitions and publications, becoming one of the first chroniclers of the movement.
In 1936 he collaborated with Oscar Dominguez on Grisou, an anthology of images evoking the creation of the world. Contemporaneously he produced Surrealist objects such as the female head Le Spectre du Gardènia, and participated in the Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1937 Jean played the role of Soliman in Sylvan Itkine’s theatrical adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu enchaîné. Called to direct a textile design atelier in Budapest, the artist moved there in 1938 with his wife Lily. The couple remained in Hungary for seven years. With the end of the war Jean returned to Paris. By this time the Surrealist group had disbanded but its influence remained strong. In 1945 with Arpad Mezei he published Maldoror and two years later he participated in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme at the Galerie Maeght in Paris.
In the 1950s Jean embarked on an extensive analysis of the Surrealist movement with the Histoire de la peinture surréaliste. He later edited Jours effeuillés, Jean Arp’s collection of writings. By the end of the 1960s Jean held a pre-eminent position among the scholars of Surrealism and was invited to lecture on the subject at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1976 he dedicated forty medal-effigies to Surrealist characters and motifs and two years later he published the Autobiographie du Surréalisme, an anthology of Surrealist writings. In 1991 he published his memoirs, Au Galop dans le vent paraît. Marcel Jean died on 4 December, 1993 in Louveciennes.