Description & Technical information

After completing his series of paintings of events from the life of Frederick the Great and the monumental canvas of The Coronation of King Wilhelm I at Königsberg, Adolph Menzel’s interest in the history of Prussia was superseded by a new emphasis on the Realism of contemporary life in Berlin and the industrial growth of modern Germany. From the 1870s onwards, the allure of the Prussian court for Menzel was largely limited to the court balls which the artist often attended, mainly, it seems, for the opportunity of drawing the participants. As Menzel himself noted of these events at court, in a letter to his brother-in-law, he was attracted by ‘The whirl of people of all races, also of all the super-subtle differences of status and position, taste and non-taste in matters of dress, in the most impressive and the most wretched of human specimens…’

The contemporary French poet Jules Laforgue, writing in 1885 during his time in Berlin as a counsellor to the Empress Augusta, Queen of Prussia, noted of the festivities at the imperial court that ‘one sees the celebrities…[including] the painter Menzel: he is no taller than the boot of a Cuirassier guard and bristles with medals and honours, among them, however, also the légion d’honneur; he turns to the left and right, knows everyone and misses none of these evenings; he moves among all these personalities like a gnome, this enfant terribleof history painters.’

The present sheet can be related to Menzel’s genre painting The Supper at the Ball (Das Ballsouper) of 1878, today in the collection of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The painting is arguably the culmination of Menzel’s interest in the events of Prussian courtly life. As a contemporary English journal further described the work, The Supper at the Ball ‘represents a crowd of fashionable ladies and gentlemen in magnificent costumes and uniforms, grouped around a supper-buffet erected in a long gallery leading from the ballroom, and all occupied in the laudable endeavour to procure something to eat and drink. The variety of character which this scene reveals is very humorously displayed…But what gives the picture its chief artistic interest is…the curious light in which the scene is set. A myriad of wax-candles, disposed in a large chandelier overhead and in groups against the wall, send forth in ‘The Ball Supper’ waves of light that really appear like an actual illumination, and fall with astonishing effect on the naked shoulders and shimmering satin dresses of the ladies. The effect, it is said, is immensely enhanced if the picture be seen in a darkened room with a strong light thrown upon it…‘The Ball Supper’ has an interest from an historical point of view, for…it is likely to be exceedingly valuable in future ages as revealing so much of the character, manners and costumes of the nineteenth century.’

In an early appreciation of The Supper at the Ball, the scholar and museum director Max Jordan wrote of Menzel, ‘When he painted the Ballsouper, this ingenious mirror-image of Berlin court society, he set to work almost as if he were assembling a mosaic. He had the conception of the whole and of all details so completely in his mind that he could finish off the painting piece by piece.’ Indeed, numerous preparatory drawings by Menzel for various figures in the finished painting are known; in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin, the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, and elsewhere. Among the drawings in Berlin are two pencil studies related to the present sheet, both of which depict a woman in an identical pose, sipping soup from a small cup and bowl.

While undoubtedly inspired by the painting, however, this fully signed and dated drawing is not actually a preparatory study for any figure in The Supper at the Ball, and is instead one of a handful of autonomous pen and ink drawings produced by Menzel in the 1870s and 1880s. These were sometimes made as gifts for friends, or for such art journals as the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, since pen and ink drawings were more suited to printmaking and reproduction than the pencil drawings that Menzel usually prepared his canvases with. Indeed, the present sheet was engraved and reproduced, with the title ‘Entre deux danses’, in an article by Charles Tardieu published in the French magazine L’Art, devoted to German art shown at the Exposition Universelle of 1878 in Paris. 

As one scholar has written, ‘When he drew, Menzel’s eye worked rather like the lens of a camera and his small, energetic hand followed it easily, certainly and quickly.’ The artist’s interest in the anecdotal is particularly evident in this drawing, which depicts a seated, elegant young woman balancing her soup cup and plate in one hand while attempting to sip her soup, leaning forward to avoid spilling any on her fashionable silk dress. It is a scene the artist must have witnessed many times at court balls, and he is likely to have been amused by the contrast between the elegant social setting and the commonplace eating habits of the guests, since it was certainly a prominent motif of the larger painting of The Supper at the Ball. As has been noted of the court balls, ‘Menzel the observer found a whole range of subjects there which enriched his portrayals of city life. It is not without discreet irony that he…depicted the difficulties of eating food in the most uncomfortable positions.’

Ink drawings are relatively rare in Menzel’s oeuvre. Among stylistically comparable drawings by the artist is a study of a young woman visiting the so-called Tomb of Juliet in Verona, dated 15 September 1881, which appeared at auction in Germany in 2012. 

Date:  1878
Period:  1850-1900, 19th century
Origin:  Germany
Medium: Pen, Black ink, Grey wash
Signature: Signed and dated Ad. Menzel. 78 at the lower left.

Dimensions: 17.2 x 10.7 cm (6³/₄ x 4¹/₄ inches)
Provenance: Gemälde-Galerie Abels, Cologne, after 1953
Private collection, Berlin
Anonymous sale, London, Sotheby’s, 30 May 2008, lot 13
Anonymous sale, Cologne, Van Ham Kunstauktionen, 20 November 2009, lot 379
Anonymous sale, Berlin, Villa Grisebach, 30 May 2012, lot 141
Private collection.

Literature: Charles Tardieu, ‘La Peinture a l'Exposition universelle de 1878: L’École allemande’, L'Art, 1879, illustrated p.87 (as ‘Entre deux danses’).

Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints