Born in Algiers, Avril studied art in various Paris salons. From 1874 to 1878 he was at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. Having been commissioned to illustrate Théophile Gautier's novel Fortunio, he adopted the pseudonym Paul Avril. His reputation was soon established and he received many commissions to illustrate both major authors and the so-called "galante literature" of the day, a form of erotica. These books were typically sold in small editions on a subscription basis, organised by collectors.