Diaz was born to Spanish parents, but following their early deaths was raised by a protestant minister near Paris. In 1823 he worked in the same porcelain factory as Jules-Louis Dupré, with whom he became a lifelong friend.
He began copying paintings in the Louvre - this influenced his early work which is based on mythology and literature.
He made his debut at the Paris Salon in 1831 with 'Scene of Love'. From the mid-1830s he frequently stayed in the Forest of Fontainebleau, and was greatly influenced by Théodore Rousseau. He was also influenced by eighteenth-century decorative landscape, and often peopled his own landscapes with musicians, peasants and gypsies.