After attending the gymnasium at Schleusingen he studied law at Jena and Erfurt. In Erfurt he became acquainted with Wieland and through him with "Father" Gleim who in 1772 procured him the post of tutor in a family at Quedlinburg.
In 1774 he went to Düsseldorf, where he assisted the poet JG Jacobi to edit the periodical Iris. Here the famous picture gallery inspired him with a passion for art, to the study of which he devoted himself with so much zeal and insight that Jacobi furnished him with funds for a stay in Italy, where he remained for three years (1780-1783).
He returned to Düsseldorf in 1784, and in 1786 was appointed reader to the elector Frederick Charles Joseph, archbishop of Mainz, who subsequently made him his librarian at Aschaffenburg, where he died.
The work upon which Heinse's fame mainly rests is Ardinghello and die glückseligen Inseln (1787), a novel which forms the framework for the exposition of his views on art and life, the plot being laid in the Italy of the 16th century. This and his other novels Laidion, oder die eleusinischen Geheimnisse (1774) and Hildegard von Hohenthal (1796) combine the frank voluptuousness of Wieland with the enthusiasm of the "Sturm und Drang." Both as novelist and art critic, Heinse had considerable influence on the romantic school.
Heinse's complete works (Sämtliche Schriften) were published by Heinrich Laube in 10 vols (Leipzig, 1838). A new edition by C Schüddekopf is in course of publication (Leipzig, 1901 sqq.). See Heinrich Pröhle, Lessing, Wieland, Heinse (Berlin, 1877), and J Schober, Johann Jacob Wilhelm Heinse, sein Leben and seine Werke (Leipzig, 1882) ; also KD Jessen, Heinses Stellung zur bildenden Kunst (Berlin, 1903).