The son of a builder, Lenbach was born in Schrobenhausen, Bavaria, and began working in his father's business. He trained as an artist in Munich, in various studios, and went to Rome, first in 1859 and again in 1863, when he was employed making copies after the Old Masters. From the late 1860s he was based in Munich, where he became a close friend of the Chancellor, Bismarck. He was much in demand as a fashionable portrait painter - his sitters included Ludwig, King of Bavaria, and Pope Leo XIII and he painted the British prime minister, Gladstone, twice. Lenbach used photography as an aid to his work.