Harpignies was born in Valenciennes, his family has its roots in Belgium. He did not begin to study painting until 1848, after he had given up his work as a traveling salesman. His teacher was the landscape painter Jean Alexis Achard (1807-1884). In the years 1850-1852 he traveled through Germany and the Netherlands to Italy. In Rome he studied at the academy.
After his return in 1852, Harpignies set up his own studio in Paris.