Robert Harris was born in Wales. He arrived in Charlottetown in 1856 when he was seven years old and was raised on Prince Edward Island. As an adult, he visited the Island often, though he studied and settled elsewhere. After studying in Europe, Harris became a renowned illustrator and portrait painter. When he returned to Canada, he settled in Toronto, which was beginning to be the principal art centre in Canada. He was a leading academic figure painter of Victorian Canada and painted many portraits. He also painted many small landscapes and scenes of life in colonial Canada. Harris was recognized as a cultural leader during his lifetime.
Harris' talent not only made him a popular portrait painter but led to him becoming the official painter of Confederation. As a youth, he had played in the band that entertained the Fathers of Confederation in Charlottetown in 1864. With the declaration of Confederation in 1867, new images were needed to express the new unified nation of Canada. In 1883, Robert Harris was commissioned by the government to paint his famous group portrait, The Fathers of Confederation. The painting took him two years to complete, and it hung in the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa before being destroyed by fire in 1916.