Although he was obviously highly regarded during his lifetime, very few facts are known about this artist's life. The son of a French painter from Edinburgh, François Quesnel is first mentioned in the service of the French court in 1572, when he designed commemorative medals on the occasion of the ceremonial entry into Paris of Charles IX and Elisabeth of Austria.
The mention on an engraved portrait from 1609 associated with a Paris city map that he was sixty-four allows us to assume that he was born around 1545. This means that his artistic career corresponded with the successive reigns of the kings Charles IX, Henry III, and Henry IV. Portrait drawings, which make up the main portion of Quesnel's work along with a few paintings, were extremely popular in France following Jean and François Clouet, and thus became an important field in French art of the sixteenth century. In Henry III's time, portrait drawing became widely practised, and not only members of the court and the nobility, but also the cultured bourgeoisie chose to have themselves portrayed in matching form. These sheets were considered as both historical documents and independent art works, and were preserved in albums. Along with the Dumoustiers, the brothers François and Nicolas Quesnel were considered the most gifted representatives of the genre. The largest surviving number of their works is now in the Cabinet des Estampes at the Bibliothèque Nationale.