The reproduction of print-based satire across other commercial mediums was common throughout the long eighteenth-century. Caricatures that started life in print were often adapted for decorative use on, amongst other things, pottery, textiles, tobacco boxes, and fans. The appeal of these items must in part have been derived from the fact that they often provided a cheaper and more durable alternative to the prints they sought to emulate. This tobacco box on the other hand, constitutes a rare example of an item which was probably far more expensive that the print it was copied from. It is decorated with a beautiful painted miniature copy of a caricature design after Jean-Michel Moreau’s The Troelfth Cake, a French satire on the First Partition of Poland which was originally published in 1773.
Collectors of eighteenth-century English caricature may not be overly familiar with The Troelfth Cake as it was not widely reproduced in London at the time, but it was hugely popular in Europe during the mid-1770s. The original version of the print was banned as seditious in Paris and several German states, immediately prompting a rash of unlicensed copies which were published in both France and Germany. One of the most famous of these being produced by the Bavarian artist and engraver Johannes Esaias Nilson of Augsburg.
Nilson was working with German and Austrian audiences in mind, many of whom would have been more than happy to see their own nation enriched at Poland’s expense, and he therefore made a number of significant changes to Moreau’s original design. The most notable of these is to the figure of Stanisław August Poniatowski, who stands to the right of Catherine the Great. In the original French version, Stanislaw is seen turning away from the table on which the map of his country is being torn asunder in distress or disgust, as the crown of Poland topples from his head. Nilson changes this completely and shows the Polish king fully engaged in proceedings, calmly staking his claim to the remains of the kingdom. The impression conveyed is therefore one of an amicable diplomatic settlement, rather than an act naked imperial aggression. This theme continues into the portrayal of Frederick the Great, who has had his sword removed so that he is no longer staking his claim to Danzig by skewering it with his blade. The figure of Pheme, the goddess of rumour who hovers above the scene, also carries copies of the manifestos issued by Prussia, Austria and Russia, over the newly occupied lands.
The box is decorated with a copy of Nilson’s German variant of The Troelfth Cake and was therefore probably made in Germany or Austrian sometime around 1775. The exceptional quality of the miniature hints at the possibility that it may even be the work of Nilson himself, who is known to have produced numerous miniatures on wood and ivory. If that attribution could be proven then it would presumably enhance the already considerable estimate of EUR 5,000 – EUR 6,500 that has been placed on this item by the Berlin auction house that will be selling it in a few weeks time.