Like the waltz An der schönen blauen Donau (By the beautiful blue Danube) op. 314, the waltz Künstler-Leben belongs to the dance music of 1867 which had the almost impossible task of injecting an element of gaiety and joie de vivre into that year's Vienna Carnival, and Viennese life in general, following the crippling shock of events during summer 1866 when Austria was overthrown by Prussian military supremacy at the Battle of Königgrätz. Many of the capital's grand 'Representation Balls' organised by the major professions and associations were cancelled, and the prevailing mood at those which did take place was, at least to begin with, lacklustre. As the chronicler of the Wiener Zeitung wrote at that time: "Nowadays, nobody steps on to the smoothly polished parquet of the dance hall in a bright, witty or jocular frame of mind; everyone merely hopes to find the like there".
The three Strauss brothers summoned their full creative powers in order to conjure up that immense jollity which, in happier times, had arisen spontaneously during carnival-time. They succeeded beyond all expectation -- especially so in the case of Johann and Josef -- by crafting a whole series of masterworks which re-awoke in the Viennese their lust for living. The waltz Künstler-Leben, which Johann Strauss himself conducted for the first time at the 'Hesperus' Ball in the Dianabad-Saal on 18 February 1867 -- just three nights after the première of An der schönen blauen Donau in the same venue -- was dedicated to the ball's organising committee, and paid homage to all those sculptors, painters, poets, authors, performers and musicians who had helped Vienna on its rise to prominence. The Vienna Artists' Association, 'Hesperus', to which belonged numerous renowned actors, singers, members of the great Viennese orchestras and choral associations as well as the leading writers of the age and, not least, all three Strauss brothers, only existed for a short time. Founded in 1859, this strictly apolitical gathering soon secured its place in Austria's musical life simply because Johann, Josef and Eduard Strauss showered its annual ball festivities with a cornucopia of delightful dance compositions. The sequence began with Johann's Hesperus-Polka op. 249, written for the modest first ball of the Society in 1861, and ended with Josef's waltz Hesperus-Klänge op. 279 for what proved to be the Society's last ball in 1870. Johann's waltz Künstler-Leben occupies a central position in this group of compositions. It was sketched out in the late autumn of 1866, at about the same time as An der schönen blauen Donau, and even contemporaries regarded Künstler-Leben as the "distinguished" twin of the popular Donauwalzer (Danube Waltz). At the time of the 1867 'Hesperus' Ball (to which Josef Strauss contributed the Jocus-Polka schnell op. 216 and Eduard the Apollo Polka française op. 25) it had already become a tradition that dance compositions written especially for such events by the Strauss brothers would first be played in a concert performance, usually during the interval, permitting the guests to listen attentively to the new work. Such pieces would be repeated later during the course of the ball, and only then would they be played for dancing. Thus it was with Künstler-Leben, whose ingenious Introduction belongs to the very best inspirations of its composer.
Künstler-Leben at once established itself as a masterpiece of the 1867 Vienna Carnival, and when Strauss travelled to Paris at the end of May to commence a series of concerts, his wife, Jetty, who accompanied him, was able to enthuse in a letter to a friend in Vienna on 15 June about her husband's triumph in the French capital: "Jean [Johann] plays all the favourite pieces now, and I couldn't tell you which please the most. The 'Donau', 'Morgenbl[ätter] " 'Künstlerl[eben]', 'Wienerbonbons', 'Bürgerweisen', ditto -- 'Sinn', 'Flugschrift[en]', 'Carneval-Botsch[after]', 'Nachtfalter', these are already hits. 'Kaiserstadt', 'Prozess', 'Parforce', 'Annen' -- 'Maskenzug', 'train de plaisir', 'Tritsch[-Tratsch]' -- one pleases more than the other. They are simply crazy for this Viennese music".