Halil Paşa was born in the district of Beylerbeyi in Istanbul. He is foremost among the painters with a military background who founded a western-style art tradition 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, Galib Paşa, director of the Military Academy, appointed him as 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 Courtois 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. He exhibited at the Istanbul Salons in 1901, 1902 and 1903, and his work attracted attention. From 1916 onwards he participated in the Galatasaray Exhibitions organized by the Ottoman Society of Painters and became the showcase for developments in the art world. 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 trained at Ottoman military schools, where the teaching followed western methods. These artists can be regarded as the initiators of westernization in painting in the Ottoman lands during the nineteenth century. As part of their military education they learned technical drawing, including methods of perspective, for the purpose of drawing maps and topographical views. They often preferred to depict landscapes and still lifes rather than human figures because of the traditional Ottoman reluctance to depict human figures. Halil Paşa's interest in depicting the human figure, the result of his further education in Europe, set him apart from most of the earlier military painters.