Breton was born in Tinchebray, Orne. His early involvement with the dadaists revealed itself in such works as Mont de piété (1919); in the same year he co-founded the movement's review Littérature. He became leader of the newly created surrealist movement in the early 1920s and remained faithful to its philosophy throughout his life; in his Manifeste du surréalisme (1924) he began to define this philosophy, developing it in two later manifestos (1930, 1942) as the movement evolved. His other theoretical writings include Les Pas perdus (1924), Le Surréalisme et la peinture (1928), in which he put forward his conception of art, and the essay collection La Clé des champs (1953).
Among Breton's best-known creative works are the poetic novel Nadja (1928), a partly autobiographical account of his surreal encounters with a mysterious young woman; L'Immaculée Conception (1930), written in collaboration with Paul Éluard; L'Amour fou (1937), an exploration of the connection between dreams and reality; and Arcane 17 (1945), which deals with the subject of occultism. His poetry of the years 1919 to 1948 was collected in Poèmes (1948). In his creative writings Breton made much use of surrealist techniques, such as automatic writing dictated by the subconscious mind, and the startling juxtaposition of images.
With other members of the surrealist movement, Breton became briefly involved with the Communist Party in the early 1930s. He spent the major part of World War II in the USA; on his return to France in 1946 he strove to revive the surrealist philosophy in an intellectual world now dominated by new ideas, notably Sartre's existentialism.