Gottfried Lindauer, also known by the Czech name Bohumír, was born on 5 January 1839, at Pilsen (Plzeň), Bohemia. He was the son of Hynek-Ignác (or Ignatz) Lindauer, a gardener, and his wife, Maria Schmid. At the age of 13 Bohumír was apprenticed to his father, but in 1855 he travelled to Vienna to study painting at the academy there under Léopold Kupelwieser and Josef von Führich. He remained there until 1861 when he joined the studio of Carl Hemerlein, a fashionable portrait painter. In 1863–64 he was commissioned to paint murals for two churches in Moravia; however, despite his Catholic upbringing, Lindauer was later known to be an atheist or agnostic. In 1864 he established his own studio in Pilsen under the patronage of a physician, and specialised in portraits of the local gentry.
When he was called up for service in the Austro-Hungarian army in 1873 Lindauer moved to Germany, and the following year sailed from Hamburg for New Zealand. He arrived at Wellington on the Reichstag on 6 August 1874.
Throughout his career in New Zealand Lindauer produced many kinds of paintings, including portraits of settlers, European genre scenes and copies of old and nineteenth century masters; but he specialised in portraits of Māori, the first of which were painted in Nelson where he moved soon after his arrival. In late 1875 or early 1876 he shifted to Auckland, where he met Henry Partridge, a businessman who was to become Lindauer's chief patron. Partridge believed that there was an urgent need for a pictorial record of the traditional Māori, and over the next 30 or so years he commissioned from Lindauer many portraits and depictions of Māori life and customs.
Probably in 1879, at Melbourne, Australia, Gottfried Lindauer married Emelia Wipper, from Danzig (Gdańsk), Prussia. They settled in Christchurch, where Emelia Lindauer died on 24 February 1880. There were no children from the marriage. Gottfried then moved to Napier, where he was naturalised on 23 July 1881. On 15 September 1885, at Napier, he married Rebecca Petty, reputedly a cordon bleu cook, who had emigrated from Britain a few years earlier. They had two sons: Hector and Victor.
During these years Lindauer became closely associated with the photographer Samuel Carnell, who was known for his photographic studies of Māori, and the lawyer Walter Buller, a noted ornithologist; both worked for the Native Land Court. Buller became an important patron of Lindauer's work. As a commissioner of the New Zealand section at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886, he included 12 of Lindauer's paintings in the exhibition. Gottfried and Rebecca Lindauer visited Britain on this occasion. After their return to New Zealand they settled in Woodville in December 1889. They made further visits to Europe in 1900–2 and from 1911 to 1914.
Between 1901 and 1912 Henry Partridge exhibited his Lindauer collection – initially 37 portraits and one representation of a Māori rite, 'The tohunga under tapu' – in a gallery above his shop in Queen Street, Auckland. In this period Lindauer was associated with the popular writer on Māori history James Cowan, who compiled a descriptive catalogue of the collection in 1901. (Cowan later produced a revised catalogue with reproductions in 1930.) In 1904 Partridge loaned nine paintings to the New Zealand government for display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St Louis, USA; 'Henne Rupene and child' (1878) won the grand prize awarded by the committee of the palace of art.
In 1913 the Partridge collection, now enlarged to 62 portraits and eight other works, was loaned to the Auckland Art Gallery. Three years later Partridge gifted the collection to the gallery on condition that £10,000 be raised for the relief of Belgian war refugees. During the First World War Lindauer was allegedly subject to suspicion and hostility in Woodville because of his central European origins. He continued to paint until his eyesight deteriorated, about 1918–20. He died at Woodville on 13 June 1926. Rebecca Lindauer died at Awapuni, Palmerston North, on 21 April 1944.
Lindauer's Māori paintings were highly valued by his contemporaries as ethnological and historical records. Yet, while the attention to physiognomy, artefacts, moko and dress is very detailed, his paintings are not always ethnologically accurate. There are errors or alterations, for example, in the rendering of moko and the presentation of dress. Moreover, although Lindauer painted some of his Māori subjects from life, he relied primarily on photographs, so that his representations of Māori were usually produced at several removes from their subject. Although he captured a sense of likeness in many of his Māori portraits, the history he represented is very much a European construct – a romanticised depiction of an allegedly dying race.
The artistic or aesthetic value of Lindauer's paintings has also been exaggerated. While his output of oil paintings of Māori was, with that of C. F. Goldie, far larger than that of any other European artist, Lindauer was fundamentally a journeyman painter – a tradesman producing portraits on commission (mostly for European clients, but for some Māori) – rather than a fine artist. Nevertheless, his works remain, along with Goldie's, the best-known and most popular paintings of Māori in New Zealand, and among Māori are valued as memorials to ancestors and kin.