The son of the Swedish painter Andreas Nilsson and his wife Rosina Barbara, a miniaturist in her own right, Johann Esaias Nilson grew up at the time when Augsburg was developing into the capital of the German printing industry. After training as a miniaturist, he developed a valuable sideline in designing elaborately Rococo decorative prints on all subjects, including portraits of prominent men and women. The present drawing is a fine example of his highly-finished preparatory studies for this series, which primarily focused on the old German princely families, but also included some members of other European royal houses. Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793) is here shown after her marriage to the future King Louis XVI, as indicated by the allegorical figures of Austria and France below her portrait, with hands entwined across a globe. According to the engraving, the portrait is based upon a painting by Johann Michael Millitz (1725-1779).
As part of his series of portraits, Nilson also made engravings of Marie-Antoinette's mother, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (Schuster, op. cit., no. 302), and her husband's grandfather King Louis XV (Schuster, no. 323). A drawing for the latter print was in the Maximilian Museum, Augsburg, in 1936 (Schuster, no. XCI), although like most of Nilson's surviving preparatory drawings for this series, it shows only the elaborate cartouche without the portrait added in. The present drawing is extremely rare in that it presents Nilson's complete finished plan for the engraving: the only other drawing from the group in which this is the case is the Portrait of August III of Poland (Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie; Schuster, no. LXXXVIII). Unusually, the cartouche from the present drawing was later reused by Nilson in another context, for a frontispiece which does not seem to be listed by Schuster (Fig. 1).