An itinerant, self-taught sketch artist for Harper & Brothers, Charles Graham was born in Rock Island, Illinois, and his drawings were in nearly every issue of Harper's from 1880 to 1992. His most favored subject was town views.
Before working for Harper's, Graham was a painter of theater backdrops in Chicago and then hired out as a topographer for the Northern Pacific Railroad survey. He was present when the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1883, and covered the subject of railroads extensively for Harper's.
In the fall of 1884, he traveled to New Orleans with John Durkin and made a sketch of the city as an illustration of the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition that was being held there. In 1886, he returned to New Orleans and from there took an extensive tour of Southern states. An 1887 illustration by Graham of Yellowstone National Park appeared in Harper's Weekly, but it was a work created from his Chicago studio and not on site. Between 1883 and 1896, he was active in San Francisco and was a member there of the Bohemian Club and the San Francisco Art Association where he frequently exhibited.
At the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, he was the Director of Color and did the same thing the following year in California at the Midwinter Fair. In 1896, he returned to New York but continued to send paintings back to the San Francisco Art Association for exhibition.
After leaving Harper's, Graham worked as a freelance illustrator and after 1900 was an oil painter.