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Adolph von Menzel

(1815 Breslau – 1905 Berlin)

Lady in a Ball Dress Sat on a Chair, Ladling Soup from a Little Bowl. Pen and black ink, grey wash. 17.3 x 10.6 cm. Signed and dated: Ad. Menzel. 78.

Menzel was an unrelenting perfectionist who was very meticulous in the preparation of his paintings, for which he would carry out countless detailed studies. He produced this delightful drawing of an elegantly coiffured young lady clad in a magnificent evening gown in connecting with the painting Das Ballsouper (Berlin, Nationalgalerie), which he completed in 1878. Positioned prominently in the centre foreground of the painting is the figure of a young lady in almost identical pose. The Berliner Kupferstichkabinett has two preliminary studies in pencil showing a lady with the same posture balancing a little soup bowl and saucer in her left hand while lifting the spoon to her mouth with her right hand.

The present sheet is not a preliminary study for the painting, however, but served as a ricordo for the artist. The execution of the drawing in pen, brush and ink, which is quite unusual for Menzel, indicates that this is one of the comparatively rare single sheets in Menzel’s œuvre, most of which date to the 1870s. The refined, highly concentrated treatment and the masterful application of wash are further signs that the drawing should be seen as an autonomous work of art in its own right. The delicacy of line depicting the elaborate, upswept hairstyle and the frills on the ball dress is of unmatched virtuosity. The vibrating reflections of the light on the silk dress are captured in consummate fashion, while a few strokes suffice to outline the chair.

Menzel’s Ballsouper, a brilliant depiction of a splendid courtly occasion with the warm light of the countless chandeliers shining on bare skin, precious fabrics, dashing gala uniforms and golden stucco decoration, was one of his most successful works. It also met with great acclaim in France. None other than Edgar Degas was so taken with the painting that he made an oil sketch of it, probably from memory. Degas’ friend, the writer and art critic Edmond Duranty, resorted to prose reminiscent of Zola to describe the painting: "How the painter’s heart and mind must surge and swell as he seizes and embraces all these creatures – these little grimacing characters who, in reality, are persons of high station, the portly ladies who hold the fates of entire nations in their hands..., the fervour and unshapeliness concealed beneath the lace and embroidery, and the chaos, the contradictions, the stormy instincts and passions"... (quoted from exhibition catalogue Adolph von Menzel. Das Labyrinth der Wirklichkeit, published by C. Keisch, M. U. Riemann-Reyher, Paris-Washington-Berlin 1996–97, p. 302).

It is doubtful whether the "little Excellence", as he was called, would have recognised himself in that purple passage. Menzel’s quest for objective truth knew no moral categories or terms such as beautiful or ugly. In his universal creative cosmos absolutely everything was worth portraying. Equally false is the widely held view that this convinced bachelor had no appreciation of female beauty and grace. Many of the pencil studies of young women that Menzel sketched in preparation for the Ballsouper are not only of a bewitching radiance, but are also amazingly true to life, having been observed with almost tender devotion. Menzel draws exquisite arms and shoulders, stunning decolletés and beautifully shaped women’s faces, which indicate that the artist was certainly amenable to female charms.

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