Saturday, May 23, 2009

Menzel: Beyond Appearances

He was small in stature, only four feet, six inches tall. When he was young, his peers called him the “Little Mushroom.” When he got mad and fought back they called him the “Poisonous Mushroom.”

Although he was intelligent and witty, he spoke gruffly, not wanting to be pitied. He kept to himself and never married. (Portrait of Menzel by Boldini).

Adolph von Menzel (1815-1905) did have one constant companion: his sketchbook. An acquaintance recalled:

“In his overcoat he had eight pockets, which were partially filled with sketchbooks, and he could not comprehend that there are artists who make the smallest outings without having a sketchbook in their pocket. On the lower left side of his coat, an especially large pocket was installed, just large enough to hold a leather case, which held a pad, a couple of shading stumps and a gum eraser.”

He was self-taught. He didn’t care for the idealization of the academies. He wanted to draw things as they were. He worked in all media, but his drawings, generally made with soft graphite are the most surprising and disarming.

He did innumerable studies of poor people. He was one of the first artists to portray the inside of a factory.

He also painted royalty. In this scene of a fancy ball, he couldn’t resist including a group of gentlemen gobbling food (lower left), an undignified, but very human act.

His drawings show a universal empathy. Perhaps because of his own unusual appearance, he was fascinated with chronicling the physiognomies of his fellow humans with a fusion of frankness and compassion.

In Menzel’s work, grace often lies hidden behind unglamorous appearances. He once said, “A person not only acts with, but also has, a certain external appearance, and the latter is as inconsequential as it is accidental.”

Quote is from “Adolph Menzel, Master Drawings from East Berlin.”
Links added later:
Menzel post on Bearded Roman, link.
Wikimedia Commons gallery, link.


Jason Peck said...

Hey James,

I really like Menzel's attention to detail. I wonder how many sketchbooks he filled up during his life.

Do you keep count of how many sketchbooks you've filled up? I think it would be cool to see a photo of all your sketchbooks together.

Best Jason

jeff said...

Menzil was great. I think he as an influence on Kollwitz. He did nominate her work for the gold medal of the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung in Berlin.

Menzel did some pretty intense drawings of dead solders, very graphic.

I love this one, he painted his foot:

jeff said...

This is better, links...

MenzelMenzel's foot

Erik Bongers said...

Had never heard of Menzel.
Thanks for pointing him out (or pointing down at him, given his posture).

Have to admit that I also like his own portrait very much.

Victor said...

I always wonder how Menzel managed to capture such detailed likenesses in his sketchbook. Did he have his subjects hold still while he worked? They look very off the cuff, but they have a correctness and specificity that seems impossible to obtain when drawing a moving person.

Menzel and another short, talented draftsman, Ernest Meissonier, were friends, but after the Franco-Prussian war, Meissonier made it a point to sever all his relationships with Germans.

Bouguereau was also quite short; a bit over five feet tall, I believe.

Scale said...

The sketch of the elder man with the reclining head is a really powerful portrait, from a difficult angle too. Powerful is also how I'd define many of his pictures which come up with a Google search... who else has done a careful study of a worn, aging foot like the one linked above?

By the way this is my first message here, but I've been lurking for quite a while - and I must say thank you for creating this great source of information. Your explainations on realistic art technique have dispelled a lot of myths in my head, it is amazing to learn reading and analyzing pictures as you do here.

Oscar Baechler said...

Great find James, never heard of the guy!

"he could not comprehend that there are artists who make the smallest outings without having a sketchbook in their pocket."

Agreed! I have two hours of bus riding every day, and I spend most of that time sketch-booking. One year of this has proven just as useful to me as the three years of art college before that, where I often only found time to draw when it was assigned as homework :P

Speaking of riding the bus, I'll also attest that drawing vagrants and drunkards is one of the best places to find interesting characters, and Seattle Metro certainly has an abundance.

Anonymous said...

inspiring to say the least

Unknown said...

I had never heard of him either. I will enjoy learning more about him. Here's to the Sketchbook Habit!

Tom said...

Hi James
I think he did marry and had a son and a daughter. He did some awesome family drawings along with awe inspiring drawings of Frederick of Prussia. Degas was crazy about his work. I think like Nietezshe he regarded " a will to a system as an lack of integrity". And thus his questioning of academic drawing methods.
His command of perspective is something to behold. In many of his drawings he would actually write down the exact measurements of what his was drawing for the paintings he would develop later. I know this will interest you, he did some great drawing of horses and spent a good amount of time at the butchers shop. He would also do drawings of the food he ate which includes a beautiful drawing of some oysters.

Unknown said...

I've recently visited a big Menzel exhibition in Munich, which was focused on his drawings. One of the most inspiring collection of works I've ever seen in my (young) life. The sketchbooks were so small and considering he mostly drew with a carpenters pencil, I feel ashamed about my drawings.

The "foot-potrait", which Jeff mentioned before, is one of the highlights of the show I thought. So much personality, it's crazy but you can almost smell the pain (As I remember they were saying he was ill when he painted it).

Thanks for pointing out such a great german painter, James! I'm sure he will be a great inspiration to others, as he is to me.

Kunst Kommt Von Können said...

Tom, Menzel was never married. His art was his live. In german you would call him 'Original'. Someone, who lives in his own world. Always carrying a big umbrella, his atelier was covered with a very thick layer of dust, thats not allowed to be removed, at meetings, he regulary felt asleep and so on and on ... His was the most esteemed artist in 19th century germany. And, because of his often looser painting style, predating the impressionist (thats something, whats the no-skill-art establishment like), still famous today. Another small great blog entry you can find at:

Anonymous said...

i liked your blog.

Hank said...

There is a famous saying (quote?) by Menzel about the art of drawing: "Alles Zeichnen ist wichtig und und alles zeichnen ist wichtig." It's difficult to translate, but I'll try: "EVERY kind of drawing is important, and it is important to draw everything."

If you look at Menzel's paintings, you can find his drawing-skills in every single brushstroke.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Hank! I ran across that quote before but never really understood it until I read your translation. Another quote by Menzel I like is: "Art is a bolting horse."

Is Menzel well loved and well published in Germany, then? We have a hard time finding much about him here in USA.

Hank said...

Well, I can't say much about wether he's loved in Germany generally. But I myself really adore his work. I remember a visit at my teachers (Kunstprofessors) home. He owned two original drawings by Menzel - they hang at a wall next to a small original Kupferstich (sorry, don't know the english expression) by Rembrandt. That was a hint: Menzel is one of the really big guys! ;)

I think, Menzel is quite well known in Germany, at least to people, who know something about art. Especially his paintings "Flötenkonzert Friedrichs des Großen in Sanssoucie"


"Das Eisenwalzwerk"

are famous, of course not only because of their quality, but also because of their sujets.

Menzel's reputation would maybe a little higher, if there wouldn't be the german Impressionists like Max Liebermann (also a Berliner), who kind of steal some of the attention, that should focus on him. ;)

p.s.: excuse my poor English, please!

Erik Bongers said...

Kupferstich is probably Copper plate etching...

Jean Spitzer said...

Really interesting and beautiful drawings and paintings; I love the quote cited by Hank.

Tom said...

Kunst Komment,I guess I got the idea of him being married from the Book Adolph Menzel between Romanticicsm and impressionism. There are a lot of family drawings but they are of his sister and brother, I just assumed in my memory that they were his childern.

Unknown said...

Thank-you James for sharing the art of Menzel.

Michael Warth

Gene Snyder said...


Thumbing through your blog, I just came across this posting. Thanks for sharing something about Menzel. His work was kind of lost to the west after WWI and the growing popularity of the modern movements in art. Degas was a huge admirer of his.

I had the great opportunity to see the Menzel Show "Between Romanticism and Impressionism" at the National Gallery of art in Washington DC in the mid-90s. What a fantastic show!! I had no idea who Menzel was, however after leaving that show, I was hooked.

What a dedicated artist. He didn't let anything go by without remarking about it in some way with his art. Everything from quiet interior scenes to paintings and drawings of dead soldiers on the war front. One of his quotes is, "Not a day without a line." I believe he held himself to that.

To answer Jason Peck's question about how many sketchbooks Menzel filled. He filled tons! He had a specially tailored coat with pockets sewn into it to hold several sketchbooks of varying sizes.

I have both "Adolph Menzel, 1815-1905: Between Romanticism and Impressionism" by Claude Keisch and Marie-Ursula Riemann-Reyher and "Menzel's Realism: Art and Embodiment in Nineteenth-Century Berlin" by Michael Fried. Both are excellent books about Menzel.

Thanks James,
Gene Snyder