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The House of Esterházy was a Hungarian noble family that rose to significance during the 17th century, becoming one of the great landowner magnates of the Kingdom of Hungary, during the time it was part of the Habsburg Empire and later Austria-Hungary. In 1626 the Esterházys were granted the title of Count and in 1712, received the title of Prince by the Holy Roman Emperor. The success of the family arose from the steady accumulation of land, and loyalty both to the Roman Catholic Church and to the Habsburg Emperor.
At the time of Anton’s birth his father Count Nikolaus Esterházy was a successful general and lieutenant field marshal in Austrian service who would later achieve distinction at the Battle of Kolin (1757) in the Seven Years War. When his brother died without heirs, Nikolaus acquired the family patrimony, becoming the fifth prince in the Esterházy line. As such, he inherited considerable wealth with which he built the magnificent palace of Esterháza in Hungary and patronized the arts, in particular supporting the endeavours of composer Joseph Haydn.
Anton served in his father’s regiment during the Seven Years War and at one point was taken prisoner by the enemy. He was then promoted to Captain (1763) and later to Field Marshal Lieutenant (1780), eventually becoming head of the regiment. He was also Colonel and Proprietor of the 31st Infantry Regiment (1777-1780); Colonel and Proprietor of the 34th Infantry Regiment (1780-1794); Captain of the Hungarian Noble Life Guard (1791-1794) and commanded an autonomous corps on the Upper Rhine at the beginning of the War of the First Coalition.
Anton I (1738-1794) married first, in 1763, Maria Theresia, Countess Erdödy e Monyorokerek et Monoszlo (1745-1782) and secondly in 1785 Maria Anna Gräfin von Hohenfeld (1768-1848). He succeeded as Prince on the death of his father in 1783.
In these finely detailed portraits by the Viennese artist Karl Josef Agricola, Anton’s first wife Maria Theresia is seen tenderly cradling their first child Nikolaus, born in 1765 and later becoming the seventh Prince Esterházy. Anton is richly attired proudly displaying, anachronistically, his Order of the Golden Fleece. Agricola maybe was commissioned to paint the portraits by a relative or friend of the Esterházy family; the sitters are depicted c.1765 while the artist completed them in 1835. Therefore it is possible that they were finished for perhaps a family group of portraits that needed their inclusion to make sense schematically. Whatever the reason, the artist has risen to the occasion and produced colourful, highly finished works that demonstrate his abilities as a painter and miniaturist.
Karl Joseph Alois Agricola (1779-1852) was born in Säckingen, southern Germany and moved to Vienna in 1793, a city he was to live in all his life. From 1793 to 1798 he attended the local academy and initially worked as a graphic artist copying paintings of the Old Masters such as Raphael and Poussin, subjects which he also engraved. Indeed, he appears to have flourished as an etcher and engraver producing both portraits and genre scenes. However it is as a miniaturist depicting the Viennese society of the early 1800s that he is best remembered.