This acquisition by the Heritage Fund bears witness to the technical and artistic qualities attained by the Manufacture of Tournai in the 18th century, when it rivalled the greatest workshops in Europe. Towards 1760, the Tournai porcelain factory began to make a series of porcelain busts of famous people. The Empress Mari-Thérèse and her husband François I of Lorraine were among them, as were King Louis XV and later Voltaire and Rousseau.
Symbolising the overthrow of the alliances, the busts of the imperial couple were no doubt made before the Emperor died in 1765. It is presumed that they are the work of the Tournai sculptor Antoine Gillis, or his contemporary, the Parisian Nicolas Gauron.
Very few examples were made and these are among the first really prestigious works produced in Tournai. As an exceptional gift, this type of work would also have been evidence of the Dutch leaders’ desire to please their sovereigns. It also underlines the skills of the state porcelain factory.
This is the only compete pair of Tournai busts recorded to date and demonstrates the sculptor’s considerable talent for depicting faces. Engravings were used as models, but there are also some rather original details, influenced by French fashion. The rose peeping out of the Empress’s bodice is of great beauty. These two original busts bring together the artist’s mastery of working with soft-paste enamelled porcelain and remarkable quality.