Born Wilhelm Albert Vladimir Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky/Kostrowicki in Rome, Italy, he was one of the many artists who worked in the Montmartre district of Paris during an era of great creativity. His mother was Angelica Kostrowicki, a Polish countess, his father possibly Francesco Flugi d'Aspermont, a Swiss-Italian aristocrat who disappeared early from Apollinaire's life.
One of the most popular members of the artistic community in Montparnasse, his friends and collaborators during that period were Pablo Picasso, Max Jacob, André Salmon, Marie Laurencin, André Derain, Blaise Cendrars, Pierre Reverdy, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Ossip Zadkine, Marc Chagall and Marcel Duchamp.
In 1911, he joined the Puteaux Group, an offshoot branch of the cubist movement. On September 7 of the same year, police arrested and jailed him on suspicion stealing the Mona Lisa, but later released him.
Apollinaire's first collection of poetry was L'enchanteur pourrissant (1909), but Alcools (1913) established his reputation. The poems, influenced in part by the Symbolists, juxtapose the old and the new, using traditional forms and modern imagery.
Also in 1913, Apollinaire published the essay Les Peintres cubistes on the cubist painters, a movement which he helped to define. He also coined the term orphism to describe a tendency towards absolute abstraction in the paintings of Robert Delaunay and others.
He fought in World War I and in 1916 was seriously wounded in the temple (see photo). While recovering from his wound, he wrote the play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1917) (the subject of an opera by Francis Poulenc premiered in 1947), which he described as surrealist, making it one of the first works to be so described. Earlier he coined the word surrealism in the program notes for Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie's ballet Parade, first performed on 18 May 1917. He also published an artistic manifesto, L'Esprit nouveau et les poètes.