Between 1740 and 1780, Empress Maria Theresa governed the Habsburg Empire, a multilingual conglomeration of states centered on Austria. Although recent historical scholarship has addressed Maria Theresa’s legacy, she remains entirely absent from art history despite her notable role in shaping eighteenth-century European diplomatic, artistic, and cultural developments. In Empress Maria Theresa and the Politics of Habsburg Imperial Art, Michael Yonan explores the role that material culture—paintings, architecture, porcelain, garden sculpture, and decorative objects—played in forming the monarchical identity of this historically prominent woman ruler.
Maria Theresa never obtained her power from men, but rather inherited it directly through birthright. In the art and architecture she commissioned, as well as the objects she incorporated into court life, she redefined visually the idea of a sovereign monarch to make strong claims for her divine right to rule and for hereditary continuity, but also allowed for flexibility among multiple and conflicting social roles. Through an examination of Maria Theresa’s patronage, Michael Yonan demonstrates how women, art, and power interrelated in an unusual historical situation in which power was legitimated in women’s terms.