Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña was born in 1807 in Bordeaux, France. Upon the death of his parents, who were Spanish political refugees of the Peninsular Wars, he entered the household of a pastor in Bellevue, near Paris. At thirteen, he suffered from an infection caused by an insect sting or snakebite necessitating the amputation of his left leg. Nevertheless, his artistic career was active and prolific.
In 1823 Diaz was apprenticed as a colorist in Arsene Gillet’s Paris porcelain factory where he met Gillet’s nephew, the painter Jules Dupré, who became a lifelong friend. He also befriended the artists Auguste Raffet, Louis Cabat, and Constant Troyon. In the late 1820s he left his apprenticeship and embarked on a course of independent study, including old masters and the contemporary Neo-classicists in the Louvre, and came under the tutelage of Francois Souchon. Also at this time, he developed friendships with Honore Daumier, Theodore Rousseau, and Paul Huet.
Diaz exhibited at the Salon from 1831 and also began to spend much time in the Forest of Fontainebleau forming close associations with the other landscape painters of what came to be known as the Barbizon School. His studies of the forest were painted with a characteristic speed and fluency, giving him a reputation for productivity and commercial success. Awarded a first-class medal at the Salon of 1848, Diaz was appointed chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1851. After 1859, Diaz ceased to exhibit at the Salon. In his later years he lived in Barbizon and concentrated on dramatically charged and realistically rendered landscapes. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, he sought refuge in Brussels. He died in 1876, aged sixty-eight, at the Mediterranean resort of Menton.