Franz von Lenbach was born on December 13, 1836, in Schrobenhausen, Bavaria. The son of a mason, he trained at Landshut Technical College with the intention of pursuing his father's trade. In 1851 he began working in Munich in Anselm Sickinger’s sculpture studio. Through his older brother, Karl August Lenbach, he met Johann Baptist Hofner, an artist who had trained at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, who formally introduced him to drawing and painting. Having attended the Augsburg Polytechnic for two semesters, between 1852 and 1853, and working for a few months in Albert Gräfle’s studio, Lenbach enrolled in the Munich Akademie in 1854.

In 1857 he became a pupil of Karl Theodor von Piloty, an artist famed for his history paintings. The following year, with the help of a scholarship, he accompanied Piloty on a trip to Rome, along with Carl Ebert, Ferdinand von Piloty, and Theodor Schüz. In Italy he made several oil and pencil sketches that would inspire such famous paintings as L’arco di Tito (1860), finished upon his return to Munich. From 1860 onward, he started teaching at the Weimar Art School and devoted himself to reproducing Old Master works on commission for Count Adolf Friedrich Graf von Schack. His work as a copyist took him back to Italy as well as Spain, Vienna, and Berlin.

At the end of the 1860s, he settled in Munich and became internationally successful thanks to the many portraits he painted of society personalities of the time, including Otto Bismarck, Peggy Guggenheim, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner. At the beginning of the 1870s, he substituted his previous bright palette with darker tones and started using light more effectively, especially in his portraits. His style went on to have a remarkable influence on the art of the time. In 1882 Lenbach was granted nobility, and in 1900 he won the Grand Prix for painting in Paris. He died in Munich on May 6, 1904.