Ivan Bilibin was born in 1876 in Tarkhovka, a suburb of St. Petersburg. As the son of a military doctor, he attended the Faculty of Law at St. Petersburg University. After graduating in May 1900, he went to Munich, where he was trained by the Slovene painter Anton Ažbe (who also taught Wassily Kandinsky, Dmitry Kardovsky and Alexej von Jawlensky, just to name a few). Bilibin continued his art studies under the guidance of Ilja Repin, who is considered the most important Russian realist, at the Academy of Art in St. Petersburg. After the formation of the Russian Mir Iskusstwa (meaning ‘World of Art) artists' association in 1899, he got a commission for designing their magazine, and soon became an active member. He contributed several essays on Russian folk art.
Bilibin gained renown in 1899, when he released his illustrations of the Russian fairy tales The Tale of Ivan the Tsar's Son, The Firebird and the Grey Wolf, Vassilisa the Beautiful and The Frog Princess. Several more illustrations followed in the years after, both of folk and fairy tales from Russia as of a couple of Pushkin’s stories. He also painted stage sets, for example for Ruslan and Ludmila or Nikolai Rimsky-Korkasovs The Golden Cockerel.
After the October Revolution in 1917, Bilibin left Russia for a while. He moved to Egypt and painted landscapes, stayed in Cairo and Alexandria and subsequently settled in Paris, France. In the 1920s and 30s, he designed orthodox churches, private residencies and the Soviet embassy in the French capital. He also illustrated books that were published in French, though many of them were either of oriental (e.g. Le Tapis Volant) or Russian origin (e.g. Contes de L’Isba).
In 1936, he returned to his home country, where he worked on illustrations for Tolstoy and mythology and history books. He died during the German Siege of Leningrad in 1942, starving within the city when he refused to leave.