Leutze was born in Germany, and was brought to America as a child. His parents settled first in Fredericksburg, Va, and then at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His early education was good, though not especially in the direction of art. The first development of his artistic talent occurred while he was attending the sickbed of his father, when he attempted drawing to occupy the long hours of waiting. His father died in 1831. At 14, he was painting portraits for $5 apiece. Through such work, he supported himself after the death of his father. In 1834, he received his first instruction in art in classes of John Rubens Smith, a portrait painter in Philadelphia. He soon became skilled, and promoted a plan for publishing, in Washington, portraits of eminent American statesmen; however, he met with but slight encouragement.