Etienne Elias was born with the name Etienne Michiels in Ostend in 1936. As a young boy his interest in art was aroused by his exposure to paintings in the homes of family friends. He received his academic education at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Ghent where he spent five years receiving a traditional education in drawing skills and in the technical knowledge of painting. When he left the academy in 1959, this promising artist was already awarded the Deleu Prize, one of the many prizes that would be awarded to him during his career At the age of twenty he joined an Augustinian monastery in Ghent. In this short period of four years, he focused first on non-figurative painting and then on portraying apostles in the style of the Flemish expressionists of the Latem School (such as Frits Van den Berghe). But his calling for art was apparently stronger than his calling to monastic life. He left the monastery, returned to Ostend and devoted himself entirely to painting. His art style was very diverse and, in the course of his life, took different turns with different forms and accents. In 1962 he received an honorable mention at the presentation of the Prix de Europe in the City of Ostend. In 1963 he exhibited in the Chèvre Folle gallery. And in 1966 he became laureate of the Prix Jeune Peinture Belge (Brussels, Center for Fine Arts). In 1964 he exhibited again, this time in the Casino-Kursaal Oostende, with a surrealist assembly of dolls, chairs and other furniture fragments (now on display at the Provinciaal Museum voor Moderne Kunst in Ostend). But 1963-1964 was the period in which he found his way to figural painting, partly under the influence of the works of Roger Raveel.
One exhibition followed the other, with a breakthrough in 1967 when he participated in exhibitions in the Netherlands (Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Groningen and in 1970 the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem). In that period he mainly gained fame as an artist of the New Figuration. The year 1967 brought its first exhibition in Italy with the Premio Lissone Internazionale di Pittura. In 1969 he exhibited for the first time at the Art Gallery and Museum in Bradford, England.
In the ensuing years Elias became widely known, in Belgium and the surrounding countries, but also in Canada (exhibition in 1981). One exhibition followed another, either in a group or alone. In 1987 he exhibited in the Galerie Collection d’Art in Amsterdam. Also, in 1987 he got a prominent place in the large exhibition Na Beervelde in the PMMK in Ostend. His work would undergo various changes in manner and palette for the remaining years of his life. In 2005 he received held his final major exhibition: Retrospective Etienne Elias at the PMMK in Ostend. With this he was recognized as one of the greatest living contemporary Belgian painters.
Etienne Elias died in 2007 at the age of 71 after a protracted illness. His works today are included in many private collections and publicly at the Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Ostend and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.