In the second half of the 1870s Raffaelli turned to chronicling the life of the least fortunate – his portrayals of workers done over the next decade are almost unique in French painting in their uncompromising images of simple peasants, rag and bone men (chiffonniers), absinthe drinkers, and scenes of Bohemian life. His 1877 Salon submission, the extraordinary “Family of Jean le Boiteux,” is a masterpiece of social realism, which attracted the attention of Duranty, the leading proponent of the new painting, later called Impressionism. Indeed, in 1877 he made the acquaintance of Degas, Forain and Zandomeneghi (at the brasserie of the Nouvelle Athènes, place Pigalle) and, thanks to the influence of Degas, was invited to exhibit at the 5th Impressionist exhibition, of 1880 (to which he sent thirty-four paintings, pastels and drawings), along with Felix and Marie Braquemond, Caillebotte, Mary Cassat, Degas, Forain, Gauguin, Pissarro and Berthe Morisot. The critics Duranty, Huysmans, Doucet and Jules Claretie all praised his work and he showed another thirty-three works in 1881, among which “Les declasses” (the Downgraded - a portrayal of two working men seated at an outside table) that earned him the comment from the Figaro critic, Albert Woolff (who lent two Raffaëlli paintings from his own collection to the show) that what Millet did for the humble peasant, “Raffaëlli begins to do for the modest people of Paris. He shows them as they are, more often than not stupefied by life’s hardships.” Huysmans compared Raffaëlli to the Le Nain brothers, writing that the artist had “taken up and completed (their) work”; indeed, in their stoic acceptance, his figures offer few clues to whatever story they might tell.
Caillebotte and Pissarro opposed him being re-invited to exhibit with the Impressionists, and Raffaëlli himself recognized that he had different technical and stylistic priorities. In 1885 he was taken up by Durand-Ruel, however, and the following year exhibited at the International organized by Georges Petit alongside Monet and Renoir. The art establishment now accepted Raffaëlli as a leading painter; the Luxembourg acquired his Family of Jean le Boiteux (the dramatic Portrait of Clemenceau in the Cirque Fernando of 1883 was purchased in 1906), but this acceptance coincided with a change of subject and move away from the large figural paintings and social realism towards more broadly painted Parisian street scenes. In 1888 Raffaëlli painted his splendid portrait of the influential critic and collector Edmond de Goncourt, an effete dandy standing in his grand salon, but for the intensity of his expression almost overpowered by the possessions with which he is surrounded. Once he entered the Goupil stable of artists, in 1890, the figures begin to diminish and the city of Paris itself plays a larger role henceforth in his compositions – the powerful Vieux Convalescents of 1892 is among the last of his large scale social realist subjects. In the last two decades of his life he continued to produce Parisian street scenes, the occasional landscape and portraits; while he continued to find a following among those seeking to memorialize their visit to Paris, they also demonstrate that he had chosen to ignore the extraordinary changes that had taken place in the avant-garde of contemporary painting, a movement with which he was at one time in the vanguard.