Max Ernst was born in Brühl, Germany. In 1909, he enrolled in the University at Bonn to study philosophy but soon abandoned these courses to pursue his interest in art. In 1913 he met Guillaume Apollinaire and Robert Delaunay and traveled to the Montparnasse Quarter in Paris, France where a gathering of artists from around the globe was taking place.
In 1918, he married the art historian Luise Straus, a stormy relationship that would not last. The next year he visited Paul Klee and created his first paintings, block prints and collages, and experimented with mixed media. During World War I he served in the German army and after the war, filled with new ideas, Max Ernst, Jean Arp and social activist Alfred Grunwald, formed the Cologne, Germany Dada group but two years later in 1922, he returned to the artistic community at Montparnasse in Paris.
Constantly experimenting, in 1925 he invented frottage, a technique using pencil rubbings of objects. The next year he collaborated with Joan Miro on designs for Sergei Diaghilev. With Miro's help, Max Ernst pioneered grattage in which he troweled pigment from his canvases. In addition to helping to spawn Dadaism, in Montparnasse he was important in the birth of Surrealism where an artist used images in a way that made no logical sense, instead making the whims of their psyche the source of their subject matter. After a period with the Surrealists, Ernst left their group due in part to André Breton's desire to ostracize Ernst's friend, the poet Paul Eluard. In 1934 he began to work in sculpture, spending time with Alberto Giacometti. In 1938, the American heiress Peggy Guggenheim acquired a number of Max Ernst's works which she displayed in her new museum in London, England.
Following the outbreak of World War II, Max Ernst was detained as an enemy alien but with the assistance of the American journalist Varian Fry in Marseille, he managed to escape the country with Peggy Guggenheim. They arrived in the United States in 1941 and were married the following year. Living in New York City, along with Marcel Duchamp and Marc Chagall, fellow avant-garde painters who had fled the War in Europe, Max Ernst helped inspire the use of Abstract expressionism among American painters.
His marriage to Peggy Guggenheim did not last, and in Beverly Hills, California in October of 1946, in a double ceremony with Man Ray and Juliet Bowser he married Dorothea Tanning. Ernst remained primarily in the United States, living in Sedona, Arizona and in 1948 wrote the treatise "Beyond Painting" before visiting Europe in 1950. He returned to Paris permanently in 1953 and the following year he won the Venice Biennale. As a result of the publicity, he began to achieve financial success.
In 1963 he and his wife moved to a small town in the south of France where he continued to work. He designed stage sets and a fountain for the city of Ambois. In 1975, a retrospective of his works was held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and the Galeries Nationales du Grand-Palais in Paris published a complete catalogue of his works.