Tanguy was born in Paris, France, the son of a retired navy captain. His parents were both of Breton origin. After his father's death in 1908, his mother moved back to her native Locronan, Finistčre, and he ended up spending much of his youth living with various relatives.
In 1918, Yves Tanguy briefly joined the merchant navy before being drafted into the Army, where he befriended Jacques Prévert. At the end of his military service in 1922, he returned to Paris, where he worked various odd jobs. By chance, he stumbled upon a painting by Giorgio de Chirico and was so deeply impressed he resolved to become a painter himself in spite of his complete lack of formal training.
Tanguy had a habit of being completely absorbed by the current painting he was working on. This way of creating artwork may have been due to his very small studio which only had enough room for one wet piece.
Through his friend Jacques Prévert, in around 1924 Tanguy was introduced into the circle of surrealist artists around André Breton. Tanguy quickly began to develop his own unique painting style, giving his first solo exhibition in Paris in 1927, and marrying his first wife later that same year. During this busy time of his life, André Breton gave Tanguy a contract to paint 12 pieces a year. With his fixed income, he painted less and only ended up creating eight works of art for Breton.
Throughout the 1930s, Tanguy adopted the bohemian lifestyle of the struggling artist with gusto, leading eventually to the failure of his first marriage. In 1938, after seeing the work of fellow artist Kay Sage, Tanguy began a relationship with her that would eventually lead to his second marriage.
With the outbreak of World War II, Sage moved back to her native New York, and Tanguy, judged unfit for military service, followed her. He would spend the rest of his life in the United States. Sage and Tanguy were married in Reno, Nevada on August 17, 1940. Toward the end of the war, the couple moved to Woodbury, Connecticut, converting an old farmhouse into an artists' studio. They spent the rest of their lives there. In 1948, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
In January 1955, Tanguy suffered a fatal stroke at Woodbury. His body was cremated and his ashes preserved until Sage's death in 1963. Later, his ashes were scattered on the beach at Douarnenez in his beloved Brittany, together with those of his wife.
Yves Tanguy's paintings have a unique, immediately recognizable style of nonrepresentational surrealism. They show vast, abstract landscapes, mostly in a tightly limited palette of colors, only occasionally showing flashes of contrasting color accents. Typically, these alien landscapes are populated with various abstract shapes, sometimes angular and sharp as shards of glass, sometimes with an intriguingly organic look to them, like giant amoebae suddenly turned to stone.