He was born in Unterpfaffenhofen as the second of three sons of Franziska and Simon Spitzweg. His father, a wealthy merchant, had Carl trained as a pharmacist. He attained his qualification from the University of Munich, but while recovering from an illness he also took up painting. Spitzweg was self-taught as an artist, and began by copying the works of Flemish masters. He contributed his first work to satiric magazines. Upon receiving an inheritance in 1833, he was able to dedicate himself to painting.
Later, Spitzweg visited European art centers, studying the works of various artists and refining his technique and style; he visited Prague, Venice, Paris, London, and Belgium. His later paintings and drawings are often humorous genre works. Many of his paintings depict sharply characterized eccentrics, for example The Bookworm (1850) and The Hypochondriac (c. 1865, in the Neue Pinakothek, Munich).