Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was fond of recording his friends and patrons for posterity on alabaster medallions. The German writer of the Enlightenment period, Friedrich Nicolai - a great enemy of Goethe - recounts that while he was chatting with the sculptor in his house in Pozsony (now Bratislava, in Slovakia), Messerschmidt had carved a medallion portrait of him in a couple of hours. This story well illustrates the artist's brilliant craftsmanship and skill, also apparent in his character heads. Alabaster was also favoured for his portrait heads: although it gives the same effect as marble, it is much softer and can be scratched even with a fingernail, making it an ideal medium for the swiftly and brilliantly carved medallions.
Messerschmidt's link to the aristocracy remained unbroken in Pozsony too, and they frequently commissioned works from him after he withdrew into a self-imposed exile from Vienna. One of the most important patrons of his Pozsony years, Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen, the newly appointed Habsburg governor, moved to Pozsony (then the capital of Hungary) at the same time as Messerschmidt. The duke is best known to posterity because his enormous collection of prints and drawings laid the foundation for the superlative graphic holdings at the Albertina in Vienna, which is also named after him. As well as making his portrait Messerschmidt fashioned busts of him, in marble and lead (Albertina, Vienna, and Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich). The pair to this medallion portrait of the duke is that of his wife, Archduchess Maria Christina, the favourite daughter of Maria Theresa, ruler of the Habsburg Empire. Contrary to the custom of the ruling houses of the time, the marriage of the ducal couple was made not for diplomatic reasons, but for love. Later, after Maria Christina's death, Albert had a tomb made to the memory of his beloved by the Roman Classicist sculptor Antonio Canova (Augustinekirche, Vienna).
Text: © Miriam Szőcs