Julian Schnabel was born in New York City in 1951. In 1965 he moved with his family to Brownsville, Texas. He attended the University of Houston from 1969-1973, receiving a BFA, and returned to New York to participate in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.
In 1978 Schnabel traveled throughout Europe and in Barcelona was particularly moved by the architecture of Antonio Gaudi, the same year he made his first plate painting, The Patients and the Doctors. His first solo painting exhibition took place at the Mary Boone Gallery, New York City, in February 1979.
Schnabel's work has been exhibited all over the world. His paintings, sculptures and works on paper have been the subject of numerous retrospective exhibitions at museums such as: The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1982; The Tate Gallery, London, 1983; The Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1987; The Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1987; The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1987; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 1987; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1987; Musee d'Art Contemporain, Nimes, 1989; Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, 1989; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1989; Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 1989; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1989; The Museo De Monterrey, Mexico, 1994; The Foundation Joan Miro, Barcelona, 1995; Galleria d'Arte Moderna di Bologna, Italy, 1996; Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 2004; and Mostra d'Oltremare, Napoli, 2004.
In 1996 he wrote and directed the feature film Basquiat about fellow New York artist Jean Michel Basquiat. The film was distributed world wide by Miramax films and was in the official selection of the 1996 Venice Film Festival. Schnabel's second film, Before Night Falls, based on the life of the late exiled Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas, won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Colpa Volpi for best actor for Javier Bardem at the Venice Film Festival 2000. Named to over 100 year-end top ten lists, Bardem's portrayal in Before Night Falls earned him both Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for best actor. Schnabel was also nominated for an Oscar in 2008 for Best Achievement in Directing for his work on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon), 2007.
Julian Schnabel currently lives and works in New York City and Montauk, New York, and San Sebastian, Spain.