The son of a market employee at Les Halles, Paris, Michel was befriended by a farmer general named M. de Chalue, and in 1775 he began an apprenticeship with the history painter and professor at the Academy of Saint-Luc, Leduc. During the same period he was also painting and sketching in the open air.
From 1800 he worked at the Louvre as a restorer of Flemish and Dutch paintings, including works by Rembrandt, Jacob van Ruisdael and Meindert Hobbema, all of which had a decisive impact on his own work.
Michel always painted in a small area around Paris, including Montmartre and the plains of Saint-Denis. He became increasingly interested in the dramatic use of light and shade, and his mature work is characterised by stormy skies, broad brushstrokes and vivid contrasts. His paintings had a decisive impact on the Barbizon artists.