Jean-Marie Leclair was born in Lyons, and by the age of 19 performed there at the opera house as a ballet dancer, along with his young wife. Although by then a capable violinist, the first mention of his compositions comes in 1721 with his inclusion in an anthology of French and Italian sonatas, Leclair being represented with works which would later be published as his Op.1 and Op. 2. He travelled to Turin in 1722 and to Paris the following year, where he received the patronage of Joseph Bonnier, one of the richest men in France. After studying in Turin with Somis, he made his concert debut in Paris in 1727 performing his own works, to much approval.
Leclair is known to have met and worked with Pietro-Antonio Locatelli while in Kassel - the two took part in musical duels, their contrasting styles making a great impression on the audiences of the time. Returning to Paris, in 1733 Louis XV appointed Leclair ordinaire de la musique du roi , and he held the post until 1737 when he resigned over a dispute with rival Pierre Guignon concerning who was to direct the King's orchestra. From then on Leclair led an insecure life of concert tours and short-term positions, partially retiring around 1744. His sole opera, Scylla et Glaucus, was given in 1746, and he planned to emulate Jean-Philippe Rameau who had also started late in the medium. However the opera was not a success, and from 1748 he worked for the Duke of Gramont. In 1764 Leclair was murdered, with substantial evidence pointing to his nephew, a jealous violinist.