He had only a brief artistic education (which included five months in the studio of Léon Cogniet) and he was largely self-taught. His early career was as a book illustrator, but in the late 1830s he also began to establish a reputation as a painter of historical genre scenes. Their small scale, meticulous detail and historical accuracy made them enormously attractive to many collectors. Within a decade he was the most expensive artist in France, his paintings largely the preserve of the financial and social elite.
Many of his subjects were taken from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (cavaliers, artists and musicians, gentlemen at leisure), but in the 1860s he turned increasingly to scenes from Napoleon's military campaigns, some painted on a larger scale than his earlier works. He also produced sculptures, particularly of horses. Much honoured, in 1889 he became the first artist to receive the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour.