Adolphe Menzel was different to other people. Or rather, everyone was different to him. He was very small man, he stood just four feet and six inches tall, and had an unusually over-large head. Menzel was different to everyone else in another way too.
He was a genius. Adolphe Menzel, or to give him the name he gave himself after his knighthood, Adolph Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel (1815- 1905), is now (and was, in his lifetime) considered one of the, if not the, most prominent German painters of the 19th century. He was definitely the most successful German artist of his era. The great Impressionist Edgar Degas openly copied him. He bowed down to the little man from Prussian Silesia (now Poland), calling him “the greatest living master”.
He owed his immense fame and popularity in Germany to his monumental historical paintings. Many of these major works were quickly snapped up by museums in Berlin and very few of them left Germany.
It was Menzel’s graphic work (especially his drawings) that were responsible for his more widespread fame after death. Thsse were disseminated far and wide. Notwithstanding Menzel’s professed estrangement from others, his renown meant he had to attend social obligations, and in the 1880s the poet Jules Laforgue described him navigating one of them as “no taller than a cuirassier-guard’s boot, bedecked with pendants and orders, not missing a single one of these parties, moving among all these personages like a gnome and like the greatest enfant terrible for the chronicler.”
Physically different then, socially estranged and, despite numerous friendships, detaching himself from others is exactly what he did.Although sometimes he’d travel to find subjects to paint or to draw, to visit exhibitions, and to meet with other artists, Menzel spent most of his life in Berlin. In an deeply introspective, internal world only he could experience. He painted this would, this routine. His personal things; the walls of hs studio, the rooms in his Berlin house, the walls of his studio, an upturned teapot, even his hand and his foot.
If Menzels historical canvasses were monumental in their scale (he once painted The Coronation of William l , King of Prussia at Koenigsberg, he produced an exact representation of the ceremony), by contrast, his personal work was about the small observations of a man in his own small world, and their dark connotations.