He was a French realist painter, sculptor, and printmaker who exhibited with the Impressionists. He was also active as an actor and writer.
He was born in Paris, and showed an interest in music and theatre before becoming a painter in 1870. One of his landscape paintings was accepted for exhibition at the Salon in that same year. In October 1871 he began three months of study under Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris; he had no other formal training.
Raffaëlli produced primarily costume pictures until 1876, when he began to depict the people of his time—particularly peasants, workers, and rag-pickers seen in the suburbs of Paris—in a realistic style. His new work was championed by influential critics such as J.-K. Huysmans, as well as by Edgar Degas.
The rag-picker became for Raffaëlli a symbol of the alienation of the individual in modern society. Art historian Barbara S. Fields has written of Raffaëlli's interest in the positivist philosophy of Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine, which:
led him to articulate a theory of realism that he christened caractérisme. He hoped to set himself apart from those unthinking, so-called realist artists whose art provided the viewer with only a literal depiction of nature. His careful observation of man in his milieu paralleled the anti-aesthetic, anti-romantic approach of the literary Naturalists, such as Zola and Huysmans.
Degas invited Raffaëlli to participate in the Impressionist exhibitions of 1880 and 1881, an action that bitterly divided the group; not only was Raffaëlli not an Impressionist, but he threatened to dominate the 1880 exhibition with his outsized display of 37 works. Monet, resentful of Degas's insistence on expanding the Impressionist exhibitions by including several realists, chose not to exhibit, complaining, "The little chapel has become a commonplace school which opens its doors to the first dauber to come along." An example of Raffaëlli's work from this period is Les buveurs d'absinthe, painted in 1881.
After 1890 Raffaëlli shifted his attention from the suburbs of Paris to city itself, and the street scenes that resulted were well received by the public and the critics. He made a number of sculptures, but these are known today only through photographs. In the later years of his life, he concentrated on color printmaking. Raffaëlli died in Paris on February 11, 1924.