"Free, large, and rapid in his drawing, no draftsman is as definitive as he" - Adolph von Menzel

8 December 1815, the German painter Adolph Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel was born in Wrocław (Breslau)

“In a word, the man is everywhere independent, sincere, with sure vision, a decisive note that can sometimes be a little brutal....While being perfectly healthy he has the neurosis of truthfulness....The man who has measured with a compass the buttons on a uniform from the time of Frederick, when it is a matter of depicting a modern shoe, waistcoat, or coiffure, does not make them by approximations but totally, in their absolute form and without smallness of means. He puts there everything that is called for by the character (of the object). Free, large, and rapid in his drawing, no draftsman is as definitive as he" (Louis Edmond Duranty)

Adolph von Menzel: "Ballsouper" (1878)

Depicting objects of everyday life as accurate as possible has a long standing history in art, dating back ten thousands of years to the remarkable people who painted on cave walls in a highly realistic manner. The approach was cherished in ancient Greek art, experienced a renaissance during the 15th and 16th and a climax in the 17th century with the Dutch Golden Age and the highly artistic realisation of ordinary, everyday subjects in timeless paintings. The trend never really disappeared, but was soon overshadowed by Classicist and Romantic sujets incited by a completely different idea – to depict the ideal, the bizarre, dramatic or the exotic, sometimes all at the same time. During the 1830s a new trend emerged in France, pioneered by Gustave Courbet, a counterdraft to the remote imagery of Romanticism: Painting things as they were, in the vicinity or out in the open, without dressing them up and overcharging them with myths and symbols and tender emotions. Realism soon found followers all over Europe and the Americas, often with a social critic subtext and broadened into a dominant literary movement as well. Sometimes, the approach of Realism was deployed in historical paintings as well, a subgenre that was not especially known for sophisticated artistic expression during the second half of the 19th century – but Adolph von Menzel managed to include it into his oeuvre and become the foremost representative of Realism in Germany. 

Adolph von Menzel "Eisenwalzwerk" (Iron Rolling Mill, 1872 - 1875)

“Painter of Prussia” is a label often pinned on Menzel’s works and he is probably best known for these topics. He was 24 when he was commissioned to illustrate the biography of Frederick the Great and young Adolph went at it with a vengeance and drew 400 highly detailed and historically accurate illustrations that became a smashing success and earned him a reputation as well as a series of new commissions, among others from the Prussian court itself. For his following paintings of Frederick the Great, Menzel did not choose battlefields, charging grenadiers or a grim “Alter Fritz” as stern commander, but topics from Frederick’s private life and artistic streak, nevertheless, they were received by the public at least as well as the usual depictions of blood and thunder from the Seven Years’ War. When he painted the coronation of William I as King of Prussia in 1861, he had a reputation that would follow him beyond the grave.

Adolph von Menzel: "Krönung König Wilhelms I in Königsberg" (Coronation of King William I in Königsberg, 1861) 

Prussia and Frederick only make up a minor portion of Menzel’s complete works and he was never the true Prussian blue patriot that many of his admirers saw him. He painted scenes of every day life from breakfast buffets to steelworks with high artistic skill and richness of detail bordering on being pedantic, as well as his family and the upper-class life of his patrons. And besides his early pre-Impressionistic attempts – he rejected most of the later Impressionists as “lazy painters” and his drawings that sometimes remind of Dürer, Menzel remained a Realist throughout his life, capturing images like photographic snapshots, their precise arrangement only visible after thorough observation behind the apparent seething mass of things and persons with no conjunction to each other and their dynamics tugging in various directions as if it would be impossible to seize modernity in a harmonious entirety.

One of Menzel's typical sujets: Frederick the Great - here: playing the flute in Sanssouci (1850 - 1852)