Johann Moritz Rugendas was born in Augsburg on 29 March 1802. His father, an artist who also managed the Art School, was his teacher in his early years. In 1814 Rugendas, who was enterprising even in early adolescence, went to Munich to study further under Albrecht Adam. In 1817 Johann Moritz Rugendas enrolled at the Munich Art Academy, where his principal teacher was Lorenz Quaglio.
Finding academic training unsatisfying, Rugendas was drawn to painting landscape, horses and working from nature. In 1821 Rugendas, only nineteen years old, took advantage of the opportunity afforded by the Russian Consul-General in Brazil, Freiherr von Langsdorff, to travel to South America and explore the jungle. In the course of the expedition, however, Rugendas dissolved his contract with Langsdorff in order to study the country, its flora and fauna and inhabitants, on his own. He also documented the bustling life of Rio while Brazil was struggling for independence.
In 1825 King Max Joseph summoned Johann Moritz Rugendas to Bavaria to publish an illustrated atlas on his travels. On his homeward journey Rugendas met Alexander von Humboldt in Paris and the explorer savant was immediately taken with Rugendas' illustrations. In Bavaria, by contrast, interest in them died with King Max Joseph so Rugendas returned to Paris in 1826. There he succeeded in having his celebrated "Malerische Reise in Brasilien", comprising one hundred lithographs, published by Godefroy Engelmann from 1827.
Although Rugendas had to care for his relatives in Augsburg after his father's death in December 1826, he earned enough money at first to travel to Italy in about 1828. In Rome Rugendas joined a large circle of artists as he had done in Paris. On his long country walks Johann Moritz Rugendas again experienced the desire to travel to exotic lands but he was not able to set out for the Americas from Bordeaux until 1831.
Although in straitened financial circumstances, Rugendas managed to take exciting journeys to Haiti, Mexico (until 1834) and Chile. In the Andes Rugendas had a serious riding accident late in 1837. Disfigured by a fractured skull and suffering from neurological disorders, Rugendas took a long time to recover his health. By late 1842 again able to travel, he returned to Peru and Bolivia. In 1845 he turned homewards to Europe, stopping on his way in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil before arriving in Paris in 1847. He succeeded in selling his collected works to King Max II of Bavaria for a guaranteed annuity. However, a royal commission for a monumental history painting dealing with the discovery of America overtaxed his strength as he had been in a weak state of health since his riding accident.
In financial straits once again, Rugendas retired to Augsburg. His old friend Humboldt and official honours in Berlin set him up again briefly but Johann Moritz Rugendas died at Weilheim on the Teck on 29 May 1858. His work is both aesthetically rewarding and invaluable as a unique pictorial document of South America in his day.