Joseph Hickel was accepted as a student at the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna, in 1756, where he studied for about ten years. In 1768 he was commissioned by Empress Maria Theresa to travel to Italy to paint portraits of the nobility of Milan, Parma and Florence; Hickel became a member of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence in 1769. In 1772 he was appointed deputy head of the Vienna Gemldegalerie and he became painter to the Imperial court in 1776.
In the 1780s Hickel was one of the most sought-after portrait painters in Vienna. He is believed to have painted more than 3,000 portraits, including those of the Austrian Imperial family (for example the Portrait of the Emperor Joseph II sold, Christie's, London, 8 July 1999, lot 213 [25,000]), Pope Pius VI, King Ferdinand IV and Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, as well as members of the nobility, middle classes and actors at the Hofburg theatre.