Adolph MENZEL (Breslau 1815 - Berlin 1905)
A Man at a Grinding Stone
Carpenter’s pencil, with stumping.
Signed with initials A. M. at the lower right.
207 x 130 mm. (8 3/8 x 5 1/8 in.)
Drawn on a page from a sketchbook, probably during Menzel’s visit to Bad Hofgastein in Austria in 1879, this drawing is a study for the prominent figure of a blacksmith at a grinding stone in the small oil painting Knife-Grinder’s Workshop at the Smithy in Hofgastein (Schleiferei in der Schmiede zu Hofgastein), painted in 1881 and today in the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg. As Agathe Herrmann, the daughter of Menzel’s friend and patron Magnus Herrmann, later recalled of the painter’s time in Hofgastein, ‘He was often in the smithy, drawing workers, tools, effects of the light.’ In some ways, the small-scale Hamburg painting serves as a counterpart to the artist’s monumental canvas of the Iron Rolling Mill, painted several years earlier, between 1872 and 1875, and now in the Nationalgalerie in Berlin3. Whereas the Iron Rolling Mill depicted one of the most modern and technologically advanced industrial processes of the day, in the Knife-Grinder’s Workshop the emphasis is on traditional craftsmanship and age-old techniques seen in a village smithy.
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.
K. H. Schönfeld (his collector’s mark [not in Lugt], with a winged creature above a coat of arms, stamped in purple ink on the verso
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
Düsseldorf, C. G. Boerner, Neue Lagerliste 92. Von Caspar David Friedrich zu Adolph Menzel: Duetsche Künstler im 19. Jahrhundert, 1990, pp.46-47, no.28; Zurich, Galerie Pels-Leusden, Adolph von Menzel: Spätes Debut, 2002, pp.42-43, no.22; Bernhard Maaz, ed., Adolph Menzel: radikal real, exhibition catalogue, Munich, 2008, p.146, no.114 (entry by Hélène Hiblot).