There’s a good chance that Adolph Menzel doesn’t come up when you’re thinking about famous artists – he isn’t all that famous even in Germany, his home country.
You look at his gorgeous graphite drawings, and you wonder why. Why is it that certain art-world cretins hog the limelight, when someone like Menzel is barely even a blip in the vastness of Art history?
Then you come across his story, and you realise that he probably wanted it to be that way. This is an account of Adolph Menzel – the artist that Degas called “The greatest Living Master.”
Born in 1815 in Breslau germany, Menzel was not an artist who came by his calling in the conventional sense. He did not have the privilege of studying at an atelier under a master artist, instead relying largely on self-education and learning by trial and error. The son of a lithographer – Menzel briefly took a few classes at the Berlin Academy of Art during his early years, drawing from plaster-casts. This may have been the only formal art education that he ever received.
Compared to his peers and going by the highly connected art circles of his time, Adolph Menzel was a anomoly. He was a loner, preferring to studiously draw studies of everyday life, than mixing it up with his peers. James Gurney writes that Menzel drew constantly, always observing, constantly making visual notes of objects that most people would simply gloss over (These would later turn up in his paintings in gorgeous, excruciating detail.)
The great impressionist artist, Edgar Degas was an ardent fan, studying and copying from Menzel’s work, going so far as to call him “the greatest living master”. To many of his contemporaries, Menzel was a man on fire. Louis Edmond Duranty, the famous French novelist and firm supporter of the realists, wrote of him…
“In a word, the man is everywhere independent, sincere, with sure vision, a decisive note that can sometimes be a little brutal.”
A telling observation on Menzel’s penchant for aloofness. Menzel himself is said to have claimed, “there is a lack of any kind of self-made bond between me and the outside world.”
The lack of a social life probably meant that he had all the more time to focus on his work, and what particularly stand out are his outstanding graphite drawings. These have a profoundly tactile quality to them, causing the viewer to empathise with the subject in a visceral way.
This drawing of an unmade bed is a great example. It’s not just the fantastic draughtsmanship that stands out – it’s Menzel ability to infuse a tactile sense using simply graphite and paper. The softness of the pillows, the crinkly sheets – the effect is remarkable.
Michael Fried, who has studied and written about Menzel extensively, echoes this sentiment when he writes about this drawing.
“Unmade Bed is as strong an expression of bodily feeling as we could hope to find, and my suggestion is that its special vividness and animation are grounded in the artist’s bodily memory of what it felt like to lay himself down in the original of that bed”.
Perhaps, his insulation from the art-world gave him more insight into the process of creation, leading him to the conclusion that creating great art was the side effect of immersing himself in the development of technique, skill and application. Like molten steel from a forge – art emerges fully formed as the side effect of the artist’s perseverance. In 1856, Menzel described this, with his characteristic honesty in a letter to Fritz Werner, a fellow painter and student –
It is so true that the more a person is suited for art, the more he is disheartened by the craft aspect of his work. But all art is craft, something that has to be learned with difficulty, and that is where the greatness of art lies.
See more of Menzel’s work here.