Gessner was the first imaginative writer in the German language to achieve international fame. The son of a bookseller in Zurich, and apprenticed to that trade, he took up drawing, and only later, as a sideline, began to write idylls, based on Theocritus and Virgil, in a heightened poetic prose. His Idylls of 1756 and his Old Testament epic Der Tod Abels of 1758 achieved widespread success. The appeal of his description of an uncorrupted pastoral bliss (his books were translated into no less than nineteen languages) must be seen in the context of the pervasive influence of the writings of another Swiss author, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and especially of the novel Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse of 1761, which is set in a small town at the foot of the Alps. Rousseau was himself an admirer and correspondent of Gessner.
In 1761 Gessner married, and left his father's business to join his brother-in-law, Heinrich Heidegger, in running a firm that from 1770 became Orell, Gessner, Füssli & Cie, and one of the most successful German-language publishers of the time, with most of the distinguished German authors of the day on their list, as well as a remarkable number of translations from the English (the press continues today). He was a backer of the Zurich porcelain factory (whose losses were eventually to ruin his family), a member of the Zurich city council, and successfully administered a number of public offices. He lived a life as idyllic as his texts, and did much to popularize the idea that Switzerland was the natural home of a virtue and simplicity that had been lost elsewhere in Europe. He began to make etchings in 1752, and in his early years solicited advice from Hagedorn and Zingg in Dresden. From the early 1770s he wrote little, and devoted most of his creative energies to his etching, and from about 1780 to his paintings (in gouache rather than oil paints) which he sold to visitors. (Antony Griffiths and Frances Carey, German Printmaking in the Age of Goethe, London, 1994, p. 109)