Description & Technical information

As the scholar Michael Fried has recently noted, ‘In the mid-1890s…Menzel turned almost exclusively to drawing and began to restrict his subject matter to close-range realistic studies of (mainly older) individual men and women and odd, dreamlike groupings of figures also seen at close range and involved in situations that defy being described narratively or psychologically.’

This unusually large and highly finished drawing by Menzel was commissioned from him by the Akademie der Künste in Berlin as a present for the German sculptor Reinhold Begas (1831-1911), on the occasion of his retirement from teaching at the Akademie in 1898. Menzel and Begas knew each other well; they had both been elected to the senate of the Akademie in 1875, and in the same year Begas produced a portrait bust of Menzel. Twenty years later, in 1895, Begas was commissioned by the Akademie to design a portrait medal of Menzel, in honour of his eightieth birthday, while in 1904 he produced two plaster casts of Menzel’s hands, one holding a pencil and the other a paintbrush.

The present sheet may be grouped with a handful of late drawings by Menzel of groups of heads, presented without any obvious narrative context. As the Menzel scholar Marie Ursula Riemann-Reyher has written of such drawings, ‘Menzel finished a large number of pencil drawings in his last years, right up to his death…He began to draw faces in close proximity to each other, sometimes half-silhouettes, of numerous anonymous men and women he came across here and there in the streets of Berlin or in the restaurants he went to, but also on the trips he undertook…The heads were sometimes brought together in small, apparently spontaneous scenes. They evoke a cinema-like panorama or compel a comparison with photographs in their fragmentary framing. From a technical point of view Menzel shows a total mastery of his art in these picturesque drawings. Working with both subtlety and boldness, he achieved the most skilled art in terms of nuances of grey and black…These drawings are impressions that have taken on form, and portray variations on the theme of alienation by showing the fragile, fortuitous ways in which people coexist or oppose each other.’

This large sheet exemplifies Menzel’s distinctive and assured technique, particularly evident in his late drawings, of a combination of pencil and shading stump to achieve remarkable painterly effects. Among stylistically comparable drawings is an undated sheet of studies of heads, of similar dimensions to the present sheet, in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin.

The present sheet was reproduced and published as a photogravure or collotype by Meisenbach Riffarth & Co. in Berlin. This drawing was lent by Reinhold Begas to the seminal memorial exhibition of Menzel’s oeuvre held, a few weeks after the artist’s death, at the National-Galerie in Berlin in 1905.

Date:  1898
Period:  1850-1900, 19th century
Origin:  Germany
Medium: Carpenter’s pencil, With stumping, Laid down
Signature: Signed and dated Ad. Menzel / 98 at the upper right. 

Dimensions: 31 x 23 cm (12¹/₄ x 9 inches)
Provenance: Commissioned from the artist in 1898 by the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, as a retirement present for Reinhold Begas, Berlin
Private collection, South America
Anonymous sale, New York, Sotheby’s, 4 November 2010, lot 63
Private collection.

Literature: Max Jordan,Das Werk Adolf Menzels, Munich, 1905, illustrated p.99; Max Jordan, Das Werk Adolf Menzels, 1895-1905: II. Nachtrag dem Hauptwerke, Munich, 1905; pl.6; Peter Betthausen et al, Adolph Menzel 1815-1905: Master Drawings from East Berlin, exhibition catalogue, New York and elsewhere, 1990-1991, p.219, under no.77; Claude Keisch and Marie Ursula Riemann-Reyher, ed., Adolph Menzel: Briefe, Berlin and Munich, 2009, Vol.3 (1881 bis 1905), p.1373, under no.1878, note 1.

Exhibitions: Berlin, Lehrter Bahnhof, Grosse Berliner Kunst-Ausstellung, 1899; Berlin, Königliche National-Galerie, Ausstellung von Werken Adolph von Menzels, 1905, no.5248 (‘Drei Studienköpfe’, lent by Begas).

Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints