Adolph Menzel
Biography of German Impressionist & Realist History Painter.

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Living Room with the Artist's Sister
(1847) Bavarian State Art Collection,
Neue Pinakothek, Munich.
Its innovative qualities make it one of
the Greatest Modern Paintings.

Adolph Menzel (1815-1905)


Early Life
History Painting
Modern Art
Pioneer of Impressionism
Reputation as a Painter
Other 19th Century German Painters

Paintings by Adolph Menzel
are also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Adolph Menzel, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.


The German painter, etcher and lithographer Adolph von Menzel (1815-1905) ranks alongside Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) as one of the most innovative figures in German Art of the 19th Century. However, unlike Friedrich, who believed deeply in the romantic power of nature, Menzel believed in Realism and strove for an objective, true-to-life representation of the world. A master of drawing and various types of printmaking, as well as realist painting, he created over 10,000 paintings, drawings and fine art prints, including 400 illustrations for the life of Emperor Frederick the Great. His canvases - including history paintings and genre scenes, as well as portraits - are typically well-researched, acutely observant and highly detailed. His palette, teatment of light and overall style - as exemplified for instance by Living Room with the Artist's Sister (1847, Bavarian State Art Collection, Neue Pinakothek, Munich) - predated French Impressionism by twenty five years. Menzel now ranks alongside the best modern artists of 19th century Germany.


Early Life

Born Adolph Friedrich Erdmann Menzel in Breslau, Silesia (now Wroclaw, Poland), he moved with his family to Berlin in 1830, where he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Art and joined the Young Berlin Art Union (Jungerer Berliner Kunstverein). In 1832, following the death of his father, Menzel took over the family lithography business to which he applied himself with great energy, producing over 400 book illustrations for the History of Frederick the Great (1840-2) by Franz Kugler, which brought him his first popular acclaim. Aside from illustration, Menzel retained a strong interest in printmaking techniques throughout his career, producing woodcuts and etchings as well as numerous lithographs. Meanwhile, in his painting Menzel concentrated initially on realistic landscape painting, obtaining his views during the course of several sketching tours of southern Germany and Italy.

History Painting

The modern Realism art movement began in France - pioneered by Honore Daumier (1808-79), Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75) and Gustave Courbet (1819-77) - and was immediately accepted there, whereas in Germany artists and critics continued to attach a great deal of importance to a picture's narrative and idealistic content. It was against this background that Menzel turned his attention during the 1850s to history painting, centred at first on life at the court of the Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great (1712-86): see, for instance: Flute Concert of Frederick II in Sanssouci (1852, Nationalgalerie, SMPK, Berlin). Such works were significant - at a time of national awakening - in helping to create the public image of the founder of the Prussian state, and brough Menzel considerable acclaim. For a comparison with a French history painter of a similar style, see: Ernest Meissonier (1815-91).



Modern Art

During the 1860s he broadened his repertoire to include scenes from modern, contemporary life, and events of more recent German history. He was the first German artist to depict the aesthetic side of industry - as in The Steel Mill (1872-5, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin). Another of his 'modern' works was Afternoon in the Tuileries Gardens (1867, National Gallery, London), based on a series of sketches the artist made during a visit to Paris that year to see the Universal Exposition. Probably inspired by Edouard Manet's own somewhat looser treatment of the Tuileries Gardens, Menzel's depiction of this bustling scene, replete with incidental details, remains wholly legible. In addition, his architectural realism is evident in The Interior of the Jacobskirche at Innsbruck (1872, National Gallery of Art, Washington).

Pioneer of Impressionism

Curiously although Menzel achieved widespread contemporary recognition for his lithography and historical paintings, it was his little-known exploration of smaller-format genre painting for which he is now rightly famous. Including a number of interiors and informal landscapes, these unorthodox, freely-expressed canvases demonstrate great skill in their treatment of light and point unmistakably towards Impressionism, anticipating works by Degas and other Impressionist painters.

This pioneering style is exemplified in one of his greatest genre paintings - Living Room with the Artist's Sister (also known as The Artist's Sister with a Candle, or Emilie at the Parlour Door) (1847, Neue Pinakothek, Munich). It is one of numerous images inspired by the artist's private life and was never exhibited publicly by Menzel himself. The picture depicts his 19-year old sister Emilie, who kept his household for him. Its quiet, Biedermeier mood contrasts with the moving play of light and shadow in which the details of figures and objects become less recognizable. Menzel lingers lovingly on the soft, round face of the girl in the doorway who looks dreamily out of the picture. The main attraction of this work is the ephemeral quality of the scene: the light and shade as well as the girl's position, half-in, half-out of the door, exist for just that moment. The fleeting nature of the scene is reinforced by Menzel's Impressionistic technique. Other works in a similar vein include The French Window (1845, SMPK, Berlin) and The Balcony Room (1845, SMPK, Berlin).

Astonishingly, Menzel kept these works hidden throughout his lifetime. Indeed, not only did he suppress this 'Impressionist' side of his art, but also he was quite disparaging about Impressionist paintings in general, preferring instead the highly formal academic art of Ernest Meissonier (1815-91), the doyen of the French Academy.

Reputation as a Painter

Short of stature - he was only four foot six inches tall - Menzel spent most of his long life in Berlin. Among his most gripping works were the drawings and watercolours he produced in 1866 of dead and mutilated soldiers during the Austro-Prussian War. Revered by numerous German masters, including the modernist Max Klinger (1857-1920), as well as the great French Impressionist Degas who called him the "greatest living artist", he received many honours, and was raised to the nobility, becoming "Von Menzel". He was also elected a member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, and the Royal Academy in London. After his death at the age of ninety, Menzel was given a state funeral in recognition of is artistic achievements.

Other 19th Century German Painters

Other painters belonging to the realism movement in Germany during the nineteenth century include: the landscape artist Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839), the great Romantic Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), the early Biedermeier exponent Carl Spitzweg (1808-85), the eminent society portraitist Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904), the meticulous Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900), the naturalist painter Hans Thoma (1839-1924) and the German Impressionists Max Liebermann (1847-1935), Max Slevogt (1868-1932) and Lovis Corinth (1858-1925).

Paintings by Adolph Menzel can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

• For biographies of other modern artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of German Impressionism, see: Homepage.

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