Kobell was born in Mannheim. He was studying at the University of Heidelberg when the Elector of Bavaria, admiring a landscape, aided him to devote his entire time to painting. He became the pupil of Peter Verschaffelt. He next studied art in Paris (1768–1769). On his return, he was appointed painter to the Cabinet (court painter), and later professor at the Academy. In 1793, he moved to Munich. He was appointed director of the Mannheim Gallery (1798) but died in Munich, before entering on his duties.
He specialized in landscapes, following the style of Berchem, and his work shows a jealous study of natural effects. His oil painting are in a number of German galleries (Karlsruhe, Darmstadt, Stuttgart, and Augsburg), but his work as an engraver has more importance. His etchings (about 300) were published by Frauenholz, in Munich (1809), as Œuvres complètes de Ferdinand Kobell, another of 179 pages were published by Kugler (Stuttgart, 1842). His plates mark a distinct advance in the treatment of landscape etching in Germany.