Fantin received his first drawing lessons from his father, the painter Théodore Fantin-Latour.
He entered the École des Beaux-Arts in 1854, but was at odds with its teaching methods. He was refused by the 1958 Salon, as were Manet and Whistler, and then exhibited at the 1861 Salon. He won his first award in 1870 with A Studio at Batignolles (Paris, Musée d’Orsay), a friendly tribute to Manet. He painted portraits, genre paintings, flowers, and allegorical compositions, while keeping his distance from the reigning academic style and the Impressionist movement. He situated himself along the lines of Delacroix, for whom he painted his famous Homage to Delacroix (1864, Musée d’Orsay) as a sign of disapproval for the official indifference at the great painter’s death.
The many portraits by Fantin of his painter and poet friends constitute an incomparable iconographic resource of his period.