The theme of physical labor had already made its entry into the pictorial world of the nineteenth century with Gustave Courbet’s Stonebreakers of 1851. Menzel made his first drawings of an industrial setting, the Heckmann Brassworks in Berlin, in 1869. The impulse for The Iron Rolling Mill most probably came from Menzel’s friend Paul Meyerheim, who was working on a series on the history of the railways for the industrialist Albert Borsig. In 1872 Menzel travelled to Königshütte in Upper Silesia in order to familiarize himself with factory conditions there, and spent weeks making hun-dreds of preparatory sketches. Drawing on the creative powers he had gained from his rich experience of painting large group scenes, here Menzel creates a composition positively filled with figures demonstrating the force of modern industrial work. In the steam-filled gloom, flickering lights and bizarre shadows merge to become a demonic drama depicting the struggle between men and machines. The animated, tonally dynamic central section of the picture is set against the calmer upper third of the composition with its diffuse daylight. The apparent chaos of the complicated iron rolling equipment emphasizes the dependence of the workers, who must submit to the unbending workings of the machinery. Yet Menzel’s main concern was not the socially critical aspect of this scene, but the artistic challenge of portraying the production process and the groups of people involved in it. He was interested in everyday life, not in representing the existential threat to humanity posed by the age of the machine. In The Iron Rolling Mill, Menzel’s artistic skills have reached their greatest heights.


  • Title: The Iron Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclopes)
  • Creator: Adolph Menzel
  • Date Created: 1872 - 1875
  • Physical Dimensions: w254.0 x h158.0 cm
  • Type: Painting
  • Technique and material: Oil on canvas
  • Inv.-No.: A I 201
  • ISIL-No.: DE-MUS-815114
  • External link: Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Copyrights: Text: © Prestel Verlag / Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Photo: © b p k - Photo Agency / Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Andres Kilger
  • Collection: Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Artist biography: After his father’s death in 1830, Menzel became the owner of a lithographic business in Berlin, where he lived and worked most of his live. As an artist, he lacked substantial artistic education, visiting the University of Arts in Berlin for only 6 months, and was mostly self-taught. In spite of this, he became the most renowned artist in 19th-century Germany. His most important works depict various historic events connected to the life of Frederick the Great, such as the Flute Concert of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci, or other events connected to Prussia.
  • Artist Place of Death: Berlin, Germany
  • Artist Place of Birth: Breslau, Poland
  • Artist Dates: 1815-12-08/1905-02-09

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