Gleyre was born at Chevilly in the canton of Vaud on the 2nd of May 1806. His father and mother died while he was yet a boy, and he was brought up by an uncle at Lyons, who sent him to the industrial school of that city. Going up to Paris a lad of seventeen or nineteen, he spent four years in close artistic study - in Hersent’s studio, in Suisse’s academy, in the galleries of the Louvre. To this period of laborious application succeeded four years of meditative inactivity in Italy, where he became acquainted with Horace Vernet and Leopold Robert; and six years more were consumed in adventurous wanderings in Greece, Egypt, Nubia and Syria. At Cairo he was attacked with ophthalmia, and in the Lebanon he was struck down by fever; he returned to Lyons in shattered health. On his recovery he proceeded to Paris, and began carefully to work out the conceptions which had been slowly shaping themselves in his mind. Mention is made of two decorative panels - "Diana leaving the Bath" and "A Young Nubian" - as almost the first fruits of his genius; but these did not attract public attention till long after, and the painting by which he practically opened his artistic career was the "Apocalyptic Vision of St John", sent to the Salon of 1840. This was followed in 1843 by "Evening" which at the time received a medal of the second class, and afterwards became widely popular under the title of the "Lost Illusions". It represents a poet seated on the bank of a river, with drooping head and wearied frame, letting his lyre slip from a careless hand.
His unconventional teaching career spanned twenty-five years and Gleyre's many Students included Gérôme, Claude Monet, Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, Daniel Ridgway Knight, Alfred Sisley and James McNeill Whistler.