Born in Philadelphia, Harrison studied with Thomas Eakins at the Philadelphia Sketch Club. He met the artist John Singer Sargent in 1875 and the two became friends; Sargent persuaded Harrison to come with him to Paris to continue his education. The young artist also studied under Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, Sargent’s own teacher, before entering the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He would spend six years there learning his craft.
Harrison won recognition early. He exhibited his first work at the Paris Salon in 1881. Harrison traveled throughout the 1880s and did not return to the United States until 1891, when he settled with his wife Eleanor in Santa Barbara, California. After his wife’s death Harrison returned to the East Coast and exhibited at the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and with the Society of American Artists. He also sold illustrations to popular magazines such as Scribner’s, Harper’s, and the Atlantic Monthly.