D'Orvilliers was born in Moulins, Allier, but spent most of his childhood in Cayenne, capital of the French colony French Guiana, where his father was governor. In 1723, aged fifteen, he joined the colony's infantry regiment and quickly rose to the rank of Lieutenant. In 1728, he transferred to the Navy and, by 1756, had become a captain, commanding one of the ships sent to Minorca under the direction of La Galissonière. He later took part in action near Santo Domingo and the Antilles and was rewarded with a promotion to Vice Admiral in 1764.
In 1777, France began assisting the American colonies in their fight for independence from Great Britain. D'Orvilliers was appointed Lieutenant-General of the Navy and prepared to engage the Royal Navy in the Atlantic. His greatest success came in July 1778 during the First Battle of Ushant, when his fleet managed to fend off an attack from a similarly-sized English fleet led by Admiral Augustus Keppel.
The following year, however, he led an unsuccessful attempt to raid the English ports of Portsmouth and Plymouth. Although the weather and crew sickness played a part, he was censured for not making better use of the forces under his command. As a consequence, he resigned his command.