Robert Harris was born in Tyn-y-Groes, Wales, in1849. His family immigrated to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, in 1856.
Harris was determined to be an artist from a very young age he traveled to Boston to study painting in 1873. While completing his studies he also painted portraits and worked as a surveyor and cartographer in Charlottetown.
Harris left for Europe to study with Alphonse Legros at the Slade School of Art in London, and with Léon Bonnat at the Atelier Bonnat in Paris, where he learned to paint landscapes in the French impressionist style. He then travelled across Europe and the United States.
When Harris returned to Canada, he settled in Montréal and produced illustrations for publications in Boston, Halifax, Montréal, and Toronto.
In 1883, Harris was selected to produce a painting illustrating the conference at Québec in 1864, Meeting of the Delegates of British North America to Settle the Terms of Confederation. The resulting canvas, which became very famous, was destroyed during the fire that devastated the Parliament buildings in Ottawa in 1916. He also painted portraits of more than 200 major figures of his times, including Sir John A. MacDonald and Lord Aberdeen.
Robert Harris spent much of his life in Montréal, where he taught at the Art Association of Montréal. He was a founding member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1880, then the Pen and Pencil Club in 1890. Elected president of the RCA in 1893, he held the position for 13 years and took on the mission of promoting young Canadian artists.
He died in Montréal, Québec in 1919.