Born in Paris, he was of Tuscan descent through his paternal grandparents. He 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 École 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 ragpickers 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.