Sunday, 25 October 2009

Adolph Menzel

Room with a Balcony, 1845
Oil on Cardboard 58 x 47cm
Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Not Seen

I regret missing the chance to see this painting in 2001 when it was shown in the London National Gallery in the exhibition of 19thC paintings Spirit of an Age: Paintings from the Berlin Nationalgalerie. Menzel is perhaps best known for his work as a “court” painter following the history of Prussia from the time of Frederick the Great (since Menzel did the illustrations for a popular book on Frederick's life) to the splendour of the court of King Wilhelm I.

This painting of an interior shows a different side of his artistic talent. One of a number of oil sketches from the 1840’s that explored his Berlin apartment and the views from its windows. Painted purely for his own pleasure, these uncannily modern works are argued to presage the French Impressionists through its use of light and the loose brushwork. Menzel didn’t go to Paris until in 1855 he visited the Exposition Universelle and saw Courbet's 'Pavillon du Réalisme' and is painted 30 years before the exhibition of impressionism in 1874.

Not having seen the painting yet I cannot comment on the paint handling, but it does look as though he has applied it freely using a variety of brushstrokes that suggests objects rather than closely defining them. Despite being a classed as a sketch (it wasn’t shown until a commemorative exhibition was held at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin after Menzel’s death in 1905) it is signed and dated on the front indicating that he felt that his surroundings were a valid subject to paint rather than just an exercise. It is unusual for a painting of an interior of this period, to be neither occupied nor a formal study for a still life. This invites us to focus on the atmosphere of the room rather than on a subject within it.

The balcony doors are open and the curtains billow inwards on the breeze through the window. Today that could be read as a sexual metaphor, but I suspect he was just observing reality rather than trying to imply any moral narrative. The edge of a rug intrudes into the image from the left and a streak of sunlight brightens the floor and shimmers on the empty wall. It is a strange patch of light and suggests that a picture that was hung on the wall has been removed. There are two formal chairs turned away from each other either side of a long mirror in which we see the reflections of a sofa with a gold-framed picture hanging above it. For me it is the positioning of these chairs that give the painting a melancholic aura; whether intended or not I read them as a metaphor for an uncommunicative couple, facing away, and arguing despite the languid quality of the light suggesting a beautiful summer’s day.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Oh, it is one of my favourite paintings I have ever seen (in the "Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin"), it is the cover of my little guide book, too - a rather mysterious painting indeed, full of secrets, intimacy, and privacy- unusual- original -as you wrote- in comparison with other interieur images of that century, e.g. Biedermeier. I love the emptiness of the room (2/3), the reflections in the mirror, the little chaos, the blast of the wind gently blowing up the white curtain (we say 'Store'), and -in particular- the warm sunlight whilst streaming in in such a promising plenty! "A meataphor for an uncommunicative couple" / "a sexual metaphor" - maybe?- Menzel himself was unfortunately (?) not married, he looked "like a gnome" (1,40m tall), but he had a very good communication with his family, his sister... but I could imagine that he had some dreams and some unfilled desires...- he is a really great painter! Some parts of the painting haven't been "finished so that the colour has its own life" ("die Farbe, noch nicht in Gegenständlichkeit umgesetzt, Eigenleben bewahrt", so my little guide).
    I should 'visit' him again when I'm in Berlin in the beginning of November! The painting is fitting "The painting of Melancholia"!

    Menzels einzelgängerisches Wesen stand sicherlich in Zusammenhang mit seiner Kleinwüchsigkeit, wegen der er auch als „die kleine Exzellenz“ tituliert wurde. Er maß 1,40 m und war wegen „Gnomenhaftigkeit“ für militäruntauglich erklärt worden (in einem Land und einer Zeit, in der alles Soldatische in hohem Ansehen stand, ein erheblicher Makel). Menzel war nie verheiratet, über Beziehungen zu Frauen ist nichts bekannt. Emotionale Nähe fand er in seiner Familie. Er wohnte mit der Mutter und den Geschwistern zusammen, später, nach dem Tod der Mutter, dem frühen Tod des Bruders und der Heirat der Schwester, in Wohnungsnachbarschaft mit deren Familie. Gemeinsam führten sie mehrere Umzüge durch und fuhren auch zusammen in die Sommerfrische. Menzel stand seinen Angehörigen sehr nahe und hat sie auch verschiedentlich finanziell unterstützt.

  2. Ohm sorry, the German text is from Wikipedia s.v. "Adolph Menzel"

  3. So pleased that you have seen this one Philine. Can you tell me what is on the floor, between the two chairs below the mirror? The reproduction is too small for me to make it out.


    A pier-glass (Wandspiegel) with a wooden console (Konsole) stands between the two chairs- an usual meublement in the wardrobe or in the sleeping-room at this time (we are looking at Menzel's apartment in Berlin, see other early paintings of him), I suppose that a clothing or a cloth has been put off there. In my big catalogue about AM 1997 on the occasion of a great Menzel - exhibition in Paris , Washington, and Berlin (with one DIN-A4 page-analysis of this painting, better-'private study' of AM, painting copy also in DIN A4- format) situations like moving (Einzug) - in or wholesale house-cleaning (Großreinemachen) are mentioned in order to explain the little chaotic positions of the chairs. The most impressing is the light - reflection- play (as photo: b&w!), impressionism avant la lettre! The author Monika Marion gave an intense description in her new novel "Ach Glück" of this painting, but, sorry, I don't know this book, it may be her own imagination. AM described himself as "deadhead of life" ("Zaungast des Lebens") with no "adhesive to the world" ("Klebestoff zur Welt"), but nobody studied the life and the world so exactly and sensitivelly like himself! I'm fascinated of his work!