The composition of the present picture is very close to that of the portrait of Josef II by Hickel in the Suenska statens Portrttsamling, Gripsholm (no. 641), signed and dated 1773.
The second son of the Empress Maria-Theresa, Joseph II did not accede to power, despite having been co-regent with his mother, until her death in 1780. Strongly influenced by the ideals of his times, and in particular by the views of the French philosophes, he determined to be a monarch governed by the principles of Rousseau, rather than the more traditional Machiavelli. He refused to be crowned, or to take the oath to the loyal constitutions, and introducing sweeping social reforms throughout his reactionary Empire. This he extended to matters ecclesiastical, pushing for the complete subordination of the clergy to the State and the severance of all effective ties with Rome. Opposition to what he understood to be enlightened policies was regarded as obscurantist, to be corrected with force if necessary.
Unfortunately for the Emperor, the vested interests in the old system were powerful enough to resist effectively, but the failure of his ambitions was guaranteed by his introduction of conscription, which turned even the peasants, whom he had done so much to emancipate, against him. Threatened revolt in Hungary, and the actual revolt of Tirol and the Netherlands, together with the disastrous war with Turkey from 1788-90, forced Joseph to formally reverse his whole policy of reform. He died broken hearted on 20 February 1790.