Joseph Bail was born in 1862 in the suburbs of Lyon in the Rhone region of France. His father, Jean-Antoine, was a well-known genre painter who instilled his love for art to his family. He also gave Joseph and his bother Franck their first artistic education. In particular, Jean-Antoine taught them to revere the traditional values of earlier times and appreciate the intimate scenes from daily life painted by 17th century Dutch painters. Art was a family affair in the Bail household. As all three members, Jean-Antoine, Franck and Joseph, became professional painters; they could often be found exhibiting alongside one another, showing work with similar subject matter.
In 1878, just after his sixteenth birthday, Joseph Bail debuted at the Salon with a still life painting. Around 1880, he moved to Paris to enter the studio of Jean-Léon Gérome, one of the most prominent painters and teachers of the period. His training with Gérôme was however short-lived, perhaps due to Gérôme's opposition to Bail's choice of subject matter. While still life painting dominated his early work, Bail quickly diversified. For example, his summer stays in Bois-le-Roi just outside of Fontainebleau inspired Bail to execute rural genre paintings.
As his style progressed, Bail continued to exhibit at the Salon and received both critical acclaim and awards. His most admired pictures were the nostalgic scenes of daily life that were inspired by the current trend led by the realists Théodule Ribot and François Bonvin. Bail's originality stemmed from his incorporating certain techniques and subjects reminiscent of the 18th century French painter, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and the 17th century Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer. Similar to Vermeer, Bail's sought-after domestic scenes of maids embroidering, sewing or cooking are often illuminated by a strong light source coming from a window. At the turn of the 20th century, his style evolved once again after a visit to the Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy. This inspired him to produce large paintings devoted to religious sisters. Bail's reputation remained steady until the First World War, a period when traditional values of the past were deeply appreciated against the unsettling new propensities of modern society.