Jean Hélion was born in Couterne, in northwestern France. In 1920, he entered the Institut Industriel du Nord in Lille to study chemistry, but left the following year to apprentice as an architect in Paris. He began his professional career as a painter in 1925 after attracting the attention of collector Georges Bine. With Joaquín Torres-Garcia and others, he co-founded L'Acte, a short-lived magazine. Hélion first exhibited his work at the 1928 Salon des Indépendants, and got to know Jean Arp, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Tristan Tzara, Jacques Lipchitz, Joan Miró, Ben Nicholson, Paul Eluard, Yves Tanguy and other modernist artists and writers. In 1936, he settled in the USA and had solo shows in New York and Paris. At the outbreak of World War II, he joined the French army. He and was taken prisoner and sent to German POW camps from which he escaped in 1942, making his way back to France and then to the USA. He published his memoir They Shall Not Have Me in 1943, a year in which he was given solo shows in Chicago and New York. He returned permanently to Paris in 1946 and exhibited his work primarily in France.