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Adolph von Menzel

(1815 Breslau – 1905 Berlin)

Half-length portrait of a young woman glancing to her left. Pencil on wove paper. 18.2 x 11.3 cm. Monogrammed and dated: AM (18)83.

Adolph von Menzel was indisputably one of the 19th century’s most brilliant and versatile graphic artists. As a draughtsman he was an all-rounder and absolutely omnivorous when it came to choosing subjects. Wielding a pencil was quite simply his raison d’etre, so it is not surprising that an equally fanatical draughtsman like Edgar Degas was among his admirers. Menzel was evidently able to work equally well with both hands, although he preferred to use his left hand for drawing.

The artist’s graphic œuvre is thus very extensive and covers all his creative phases. Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett alone has about seven thousand of his drawings. Menzel’s studies were not intended for sale, however. On the contrary, the artist was extremely reluctant to part with his sheets, which he kept in folders and treated with scrupulous care. This inexhaustible reservoir of ideas for paintings and visual notes constituted the substratum of his art and, while painting, he would draw on this rich store for any motif he might require (see exhibition catalogue Menzel und Berlin. Eine Hommage, ed. by Sigrid Achenbach, Kupferstichkabinett Berlin, 2005, p. 11ff).

The present drawing is a classic example of a Menzel study in which, using a small sketchbook format, he achieves a very high degree of realism and immediacy. The rather ordinary looking young woman is shown from the waist up, her two arms being cut off by the edges of the paper. The tilt of her head, adorned by a modish little hat, suggests that her attention has been attracted to something that has just happened. Her mouth is half open, and the look in her eyes betrays surprise, almost shock. It is a reaction that must have lasted for only a fraction of a second, and yet Menzel has caught it with almost uncanny accuracy on this small sheet of paper. Menzel is a true master of the "moment décisif", an expression invented by Cartier-Bresson a century later to describe the nature of his photography. What observational gifts and what an unerring visual memory are needed to capture such a fleeting moment in so artistically convincing a manner! As a draughtsman Menzel is in a class of his own.

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