Throughout his long life, Adolph Menzel drew continuously in sketchbooks, and these drawings demonstrate his remarkable powers of observation, as well as his eye for the unexpected and the unusual. Whether employing compositions that emphasized a fragment at extreme proximity or the whole object at a distance, Menzel’s drawings are often suggestive of chaos, showing, for example, an unmade bed, the overflowing bookcase of a friend, or a bundle of documents in an old trunk. Similarly, his drawings of Berlin, his home for seventy-five years, chart the transformation of the growing city, not through grand panoramas but through small, closely observed scenes. These emphasize the spaces in between buildings, or the strangely abstract, desolate sight of an overflowing gutter. Menzel’s sketchbooks also record his sustained interest in the architecture of the Baroque and Rococo epochs. These studies of the elaborate ornamentation of church interiors exude an air of melancholy that speaks of the inevitable passage of time.
In the last decades of his life, Menzel devoted himself to drawing the human face. His subjects were predominantly older models, with lined, expressive faces. His portraits, such as in this drawing of a man, were made using a soft pencil, which Menzel applied with delicacy or force depending on his desired effect. By emphasizing each wrinkle and fold of the skin, Menzel brilliantly conveys the accumulated years of the man’s life experience.
Text by Maria Zagala from Prints and Drawings in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 97.