Marcel Barbeau was born in Montreal in 1925. Between 1942 and 1947, he studied painting and sculpture with Paul-Emile Borduas at the École du Meuble in Montréal, where he was a student in furniture design. At that time and until 1953, he regularly visited Borduas studio where he met other young artists and intellectuals, including all members of Les Automatistes.
As a member Les Automatistes, a major Canadian contemporary art group and movement, he participated in all exhibitions featuring the group and signed its manifesto,"Total refusal". Some art historians consider that he was and remains its most innovative artist. He also was a junior member of Montréal Society of Contemporary Art, he exhibited with them between 1945 to 1948.
Between 1958 and 1974 Barbeau lived and worked in Vancouver, Paris, New York and southern California respectively, before returning to Québec. While in Paris, he concentrated on using pure colour and altering the viewer's optical perception with his works. While in California he created photography and sculptural projects. In New York, Barbeau consorted with members of the french cinetic movement, GRAV (Groupe de recherche d'art visuel), and exhibited with the American OP (optical art) art school throughout the United States. While living in France between 1971-74, he started a major series of monumental sculptures and began his first performances.
Today Barbeau shares his time between painting and sculpture. In 1991, he returned to Paris where he worked for a few months, annually until the spring of 1996. In the fall of that year, he established himself in Bagnolet, a Paris suburb, continuing to visit Canada each summer.
He is mainly known as a painter, however he has been involved in many visual art endeavors exploring drawing, sculpture, print, photography and performance. Over the course of his career, Marcel Barbeau's artwork has taken a variety of directions as he continually responds to his creative impulses and his desire to exceed the limits of a given form.His art has been exhibited in Canada, in the United States, in Europe and in Northern Africa where he had many one man shows. He has also participated in several international exhibitions. He has also been the subject of a few art films and videos among which renown film maker Manon Barbeau’s Barbeau “Libre comme l’art”. This was a 49 minutes film on his work and career co-produced by Informaction and National Film Board of Canada (2000).
In 1963, he received the Zack Purchase Prize from the Royal Canadian Academy. In 1973, he was given a Lynch-Staunton Foundation Grant by Canada Council. In 1985, he was awarded the sculpture purchase award of the McDonald Canada Art Competition. He was invited to join the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in August 1992. In 1995, he received the Order of Canada. In 1998, Canada Post reproduced one of his works on a stamp as part of its series in honor of Les Automatistes.
His works are in many private, public and corporate collections in Canada, in the United States and in Europe among which are: the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), the British Museum (London), the Chrysler Art Gallery (Norfolk, Virginia), the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts (Lyon, France), the National Gallery of Canada ( Ottawa), the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Montreal), the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (Montreal), Quebec National Fine Arts Museum (Quebec), the Rose Art Museum,(Waltham, N.J.) and the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam).