After attending higher secondary school, Max Joseph Wagenbauer attended drawing school in Munich, where he was taught by Johann Jakob Dorner the Elder. About 1800 Wagenbauer was doing Neo-Classical landscape watercolours. From 1797 until 1801 Wagenbauer served in the military and received a royal artist's annuity from 1801 through the intercession of Johann Christian von Mannlich.
In exchange for the royal stipend, Wagenbauer had to produce pictures. In 1802 Wagenbauer was appointed draughtsman to the court and cabinet and in 1815 "Inspector" (director) of the Royal Paintings Gallery. From 1810 Wagenbauer devoted himself increasingly to painting in oils and received commissions from King Max I Joseph.
In 1811 Wagenbauer was commissioned along with Cantius Dillis, Johann Jakob Dorner the Younger et al by the king to decorate the banquet hall at "Schloss Nymphenburg" with large paintings of Bavarian lakes. In 1814 Wagenbauer went on a study trip through Upper Bavaria. By then Wagenbauer was a member of the art academies in Hanau, Berlin and Munich.
Max Wagenbauer was one of the great discoverers of the Bavarian landscape. Abandoning the classical tradition, Wagenbauer arrived at a more lively conception of landscape based on precise observation and study of nature. Apart from landscapes, Max Joseph Wagenbauer devoted himself to animal painting and in this genre he assimilated the inspiration he received from the great Adriaen van de Velde and Paulus Potter to make his own inimitably personal statements.