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Adolph von Menzel

(1815 Breslau – 1905 Berlin)

Portrait of an Old Woman in Profile with a Detailed Study of the Same. Pencil and black chalk, with stumping, on light buff wove paper. 20.4 x 13 cm. Monogrammed and dated: "AM (18)90".

It is not presumptuous to state that 19th century Germany produced no greater or more versatile a draughtsman than Adolph von Menzel. Largely self-taught as an artist, Menzel was an utterly dedicated draughtsman who was wedded to his pencil. To this confirmed bachelor the restless committal to paper of visible reality was a genuine passion and his sole reason for living, while at the same time functioning as a form of mental exercise which kept him intellectually active and alert throughout his long life. Menzel’s razor-sharp gift of observation and ready wit were as legendary as they were feared. As a draughtsman Menzel was an all-round talent – no hurdle seemed too high for him. Not only that, there was no subject that was not worthy of his attention. Even the most banal everyday objects are ennobled by his graphic bravura and acquire a radiance of their own that goes beyond their merely physical presence.

Menzel’s fascination with the process of aging and his own mortality appeared at an early age. The numerous self-portraits he drew show how he registered his own physical decay with cool objectivity. This detachment was probably due to the seriousness of his character. The young Menzel grew up under very adverse external conditions. In 1830 his parents had left Breslau and moved with their three children to Berlin in the hope of finding better conditions for bringing up a family there. The early death of his father forced Adolph to take over the running of his father’s lithographic press at the age of seventeen and assume responsibility for keeping his mother and two sisters. Menzel never knewthe joys of a carefree youth. Even in his early self-portraits the young artist seems strangely old and introverted for his age, and his extreme shortness of stature probably contributed further to his isolation. Only by means of unremitting labour and iron self-discipline did Menzel succeed in working his way up out of the modest circumstances of his youth and attaining great artistic prestige during his lifetime, although it is highly unlikely that this meant much to such a notoriously solitary and unassuming man.

Menzel’s later years saw the genesis of quite a large number of pencil drawings in which he explored new artistic forms of expression in his typically deferential and introspective manner. Menzel made his first portraits of old men and women in the late 1880s and he was to become more deeply preoccupied with this theme for almost two decades. The Carlsbad Sketchbook of 1903 (Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett) marks the chronological conclusion to this group of works. It consists of head studies of old people drawn in close-up and depicting almost despairingly the process of aging in all its aspects. The impulse to turn to such an absorbing genre must have been the product of the artist’s own biography and a process of self-reflection. By this time Menzel was over seventy years old and he found himself, for all his public honours, at an artistic impasse. His painting was seen by many as old-fashioned, which must have contributed in no small way to the artist’s isolation and embitterment. The real theme of these moving portrait studies is the dignity of the aging individual who finds him- or herself on the last lap of their journey through life, and this choice of motif must have corresponded to a deep inner need in the artist.

The present drawing is an eminent example of that genre and shows Menzel at the zenith of his artistic powers. The artist has approached his model almost humbly: a rustic-looking woman lost in thought, whose features are marked by a life full of tribulation. Menzel’s brilliant draughtsmanship creates an astonishing scale of nuances of gray and black tones. The texture of the pencil stroke ranges from fine, paper-thin lines – note the unruly, frizzy hairs at the very top of the woman’s head – to the strong, sweeping strokes that produce a rich deep black. The face of the brooding woman seems like a landscape full of furrows, wrinkles and creases; the overshadowed eyes, the strong nose, the sunken mouth, and the large, vividly detailed ear are wonderfully realized through this intricate network of lines. By means of a subtle wiping technique Menzel manages to suggest the softness of the old, wrinkled skin in a way that is inimitably lifelike. The result is a deeply moving, timeless reflection of relentless physical decay. A living human being has been captured here at a moment of greatest intimacy, musing over her own life. The silent, reverential dialogue between artist and anonymous model creates a moment of tension universal in its human scope that is reminiscent of Dürer’s Portrait of the Artist’s Mother and raises Menzel’s creation to comparable artistic heights.

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