Volanakis (also known as "Volonakis") was born in Heraklio, Crete, in 1837. He studied in Syros and left to work as an accountant in Trieste. His employer, a man named Afendoulis, saw the talent his young employee had as an artist and sent him to Munich, in 1860, to study under Karl von Piloty.
Upon graduation, Volanakis worked as an artist in Munich, Vienna and Trieste before settling in Piraeus, in 1883. From 1883 until 1903, he taught at the Athens Higher School of Fine Arts. He died in Piraeus in 1907.
Volanakis is considered one of the best representatives of academic realism in Greek painting though some of his works contain elements of impressionism. Many of his paintings deal with ships, boats and the sea in general.