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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Adolph Menzel

The Ball Supper, 1878, Adolph Menzel                                         
Adolph Menzel Self-portrait
It should come as no surprise to most people that journalists and historians love the superlative (that is, words ending in "...est"). Among their favorites are the words, first, last, biggest, smallest, tallest, and any phrase starting with the word "most." That being the case, historians should love the German painter, Adolph Menzel. He is said to have been the "finest" painter in Germany during his lifetime (1815-1905). In surviving to be ninety, he certainly had time enough to live up to such billing. (Caspar David Friederich might argue with the "finest" part.) Beyond that, the Menzel was not above adding a few superlatives on his own, taking on the title of the first German illustrator, the most successful artist in Germany, most prominent artist in Germany. We could also include the fact he was the shortest artist in Germany (four-foot, six inches) but with the largest head (both literally and figuratively).
Students' Torchlight Procession, 1859, Adolph Menzel
Battle of Kolin, Bohemia, 1757, King
Frederick II "The Great" of Prussia after
the battle, wood engraving by Adolph Menzel,
Born in Breslau (west-central Poland), Menzel's father was a lithographer who intended his son to be a professor, though not particularly an art professor. When young Adolph was seventeen, his father moved the family to Berlin where the boy studied briefly at the Berlin Academy of Art. Aside from that, and his father's teachings, Menzel would have to be deemed self-taught. Of course, such a designation demands the artist be an excellent teacher or an apt pupil (preferably both). That would seem to be the case with Menzel. He had published his first work in 1833 when he was just eighteen. It was an album of pen-and-ink lithographs illustrating Goethe's poem, Kunstlers Erdenwallen (Art Jewelers of Erdenwallen). Then, from 1839 to 1842, Menzel became the first German artist to master the art of wood-engraved printing (a sort of refined combination of intaglio engraving and woodblock printing.) In just four years, Menzel flooded the country with over four-hundred different prints propagandizing Frederick II and his role in the Seven Years' War (above, left).

Departure of King Wilhelm I to the Front, Adolph Menzel
The Studio Wall, 1872,
Adolph von Menzel
While making a living as an engraver/lithographer, Menzel was also teaching himself to paint. He yearned to be a history painter, though his affinity for Impressionism had a tendency to conflict with such a goal, especially in the fact that history painting had heretofore demanded nothing less than the most rigid form of realism. Menzel delighted in painting large canvases of elegantly dressed, high-society crowds. His The Ball Supper (top) from 1878 is typical of his definition of history painting. Perhaps as the result of being forced to work in black and white with his engravings, Menzel seems to have loved color when painting. Likewise he was quite adept at handling the intricacies of unusual lighting, textures, and shapes as illustrated in his dramatic still-life, The Studio Wall (right) from 1872, in which he gives us a glimpse of the plaster casts and masks used by art students in that era to hone their skills.

A Journey to a Beautiful Countryside, 1892, Adolph Menzel--humor and chaos.
As Menzel matured in his art, the country in which he lived changed dramatically. The railroad made travel, if not easy, at least somewhat more comfortable and certainly more amusing, as seen in Menzel's A Journey to a Beautiful Countryside (above), from 1892. At the same time, Adolph Menzel's Germany was becoming an industrial giant. His Iron Rolling Mill (below), dating form 1875, may be the first such painting of heavy industry in anything approaching Menzel's vivid color and detail. However Menzel's strangest work would undoubtedly be his "self-portraits" of his right hand and foot (bottom). The exquisitely detailed hand holds an ice cube. The way-too-detailed foot looks like it could use one.

Iron Rolling Mill, 1875, Adolph Menzel
Taking self-portraiture to a whole new level!



  1. Hi Jim, Thanks for this post, I didn't know anything about Menzel before, it's very interesting.

    best wishes

  2. Jane--

    Thanks for your comment and for following my blog. Your interest and enjoyment makes it all worthwhile.