Halil Paşa was born in the district of Beylerbeyi in Istanbul. He was the leading figure among the painters from a military background who initiated western-style art in Turkey. He was the son of Ferit Selim Paşa, director of the Imperial Artillery Arsenal, and studied at the Military High School and Military Academy, graduating in 1873 with the rank of lieutenant. Recognising his artistic talent, the director of the Military Academy appointed him as an assistant art teacher. In 1874, with the rank of captain, he was appointed art teacher at the Military İdadi (Senior High School), where he worked for three years. In 1880 he was sent by the state to study in Paris, where he attended the studios of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) and Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois (1852–1923) for eight years. His paintings were exhibited at the Paris Universal Expositions of 1889 and 1900, and his portrait entitled Madame X won a medal at the 1900 exposition. Upon his return to Istanbul he was appointed as assistant director of the Imperial Museum and art teacher at the Military Academy. In 1917 he became director of the School of Fine Arts, exhibiting at the same time at the Istanbul Salons in 1901, 1902 and 1903. From 1916 onwards he also participated in the Galatasaray Exhibitions. Following the proclamation of the Second Constitution in 1908, he paid a short visit to Egypt as the guest of Khedive Abbas Halim Paşa, and there his work was widely admired.
Halil Paşa was one of the 'military painters', a group of artists who trained at nineteenth century Ottoman military schools, where the teaching followed western methods. There they learned perspective. They often preferred to paint landscapes and still lifes because of a traditional reluctance to depict human figures in Ottoman art, portraits of the sultans being an exception. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries royal portraits were mostly painted by Ottoman Christian artists or by foreign painters.