The sitter was one of the great statesmen of eighteenth-century Europe. The son of an Austrian count, he rose through a diplomatic career in Italy, the Netherlands and Paris to become Chancellor of Austria in 1753. In that office - alluded to in the present picture by the statue of Justice on a stand embossed with the Imperial crest - he became and remained the closest confidant of the Empress Maria Theresa (by whom he was made a prince in 1764) and was the single most important force behind Austria's intellectual, political and domestic development until 1792. Enlightened, broad-minded and acutely intelligent, he made a decisive mark on his era.
A highly cultured man, Kauntiz was convinced of the value of the arts for the economic and moral development of the state, and went to great lengths to promote Austria's artistic and cultural growth. In 1766 he opened the Kupferstichakademie in Vienna, established by Jakob Matthias Schmutzer (1733-1811). In 1772 this was combined with the Akademie der Maler, Bildhauer und Baukünstler and the Graveurakademie to form the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, under Kaunitz's protection. In addition, he improved public training for artists and encouraged the free development of the Akademie students' creative abilities. He fostered many artists personally, including Franz Anton Zauner, Heinrich Friedrich Füger and, as shown by the present picture, Ignaz Unterberger, often awarding pensions for foreign study. Kauntiz's considerable art collection, which was dispersed between 1820-30, was housed in his palace in Vienna, the Kaunitz-Esterházy-Palais.