(Breslau 1815 - Berlin 1905)
A Man at a Grinding Stone
Signed with initials A. M. at the lower right.
207 x 130 mm. (8 3/8 x 5 1/8 in.)
In an undated letter to the art critic Ludwig Pietsch, Menzel described the figure for which this drawing is a study: ‘I wanted the apprentice to be sharpening a scythe blade (the person waiting is a peasant, close-shaven as they are in those parts, and he is holding the shaft), but his action would have forced me to make him use different arm and hand movements which would not have fitted in so well. So I left the blade in question on the ground with some others waiting to be sharpened. It was not possible to clarify the kind of blade simply because the horizon line does not allow a plan view, which has to be imagined by the onlooker.’
Menzel seems to have studied the seated pose of the knife-grinder in a number of drawings, eventually selecting the attitude depicted in the present sheet for the figure in the final work. The artist, as was his habit, marked the chosen drawing with a small cross. As a modern scholar has noted of Menzel, ‘The drawings in his sketchbooks differ from his resolved autonomous compositions. The former seek to capture fleeting movements, gestures, and expressions and are often executed at great speed. When Menzel was satisfied with his rapid observational sketch and considered it potentially useful, he would mark it with a little cross next to the figures.’
Among a handful of extant preparatory drawings for the Hamburg painting is an earlier compositional study of the blacksmith working at the grinding stone, dated 1879, in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin. Drawings for other figures in the Knife-Grinder’s Workshop at the Smithy in Hofgastein are in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin, the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum in Hannover, and elsewhere.
Adolph Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel began his career working in his father’s lithography shop in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) and later in Berlin, where his family moved in 1830. A brief period of study at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin in 1833 seems to have been the sum total of his formal training, and he is thought to have taught himself how to paint. At the outset of his career he worked as an illustrator, his activity in this field perhaps best exemplified by a series of some four hundred designs for wood engravings produced to accompany Franz Kugler’s History of Frederick the Great, published in instalments between 1840 and 1842. During the late 1840’s and 1850’s he was occupied mainly with a cycle of history paintings illustrating the life of Frederick the Great.
In 1861 Menzel received his most important official commission, a painting of The Coronation of King William I at Königsberg, on which he worked for four years. In the following decade, his lifelong interest in scenes of contemporary life culminated in what is arguably his masterpiece as a painter; the large canvas of The Iron Rolling Mill, painted between 1872 and 1875 and immediately purchased by the National-Galerie in Berlin. The last three decades of his career saw Menzel firmly established as one of the leading artists in Germany, a prominent figure in Prussian society and the recipient of numerous honours including, in 1898, elevation to the nobility. In the late 1880’s he began to abandon painting in oils in favour of gouaches, although old age meant that these in turn were given up around the turn of the century. Yet he never stopped drawing in pencil and chalk, able always to find expression for his keen powers of observation. A retrospective exhibition of Menzel’s work, held at the National-Galerie in Berlin a few weeks after the artist’s death in 1905, included more than 6,400 drawings and almost 300 watercolours, together with 129 paintings and 250 prints.
A passionate and supremely gifted draughtsman, Menzel was equally adept at watercolour, pastel, gouache and chalk. He was also able to draw with either hand, although he seems to have favoured his left. An immensely prolific artist (over four thousand drawings by him, together with 77 sketchbooks, are in the collection of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin alone), it is said that Menzel was never without a sketchbook or two in his pocket. His friend Paul Meyerheim described the artist’s appearance: ‘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…an especially large pocket was installed…to hold a leather case, which held a pad, a coupe of shading stumps and a gum eraser.’ Menzel was widely admired as a draughtsman by his contemporaries, both in Germany and abroad, and Edgar Degas, for one, is known to have owned at least one drawing by him.
C. G. Boerner, Düsseldorf, in 1990
Kunsthandel Wolfgang Werner, Berlin and Bremen, by 1994
Private collection, North Rhine-Westphalia
Galerie Pels-Leusden AG, Zurich, by 2002
Private collection, Switzerland
Anonymous sale, Berlin, Villa Grisebach, 30 May 2003, lot 2
Anonymous sale, Berlin, Villa Grisebach, 23 November 2011, lot 169