Harpignies was the son of a family that made its fortune in sugar refining. Expected to enter the family business, he began his art career late, coming to Paris only in his mid-twenties to study with the landscape painter Jean-Alexis Achard. After traveling in Italy and Germany, Harpignies settled in Paris in 1852. He first exhibited at the Salon in 1853.
Like his good friend, the painter Jean-Leon Gérôme (1824-1904), and his former teacher, Achard, Harpignies focused on minute details in his paintings. He studied the landscapes of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and the Barbizon painters: his luminous canvases showed rural scenes bathed in an even, diaphanous light. His contemporaries knew that Harpigniès had a botanical bent. The critic and novelist Anatole France called him the “Michelangelo of trees.”