Notes on German Culture

The first painting of a factory and working life in German art

This is another painting that needs to be viewed large to be appreciated… Its the year 1875 and the “The Iron Rolling Mill” by Adolph Menzel was a sensation. Shortly after its introduction the painting became known as the ” Modern Cyclops”, as in the Greek sagas of Vulcans helpers who forged the gods’ weapons. 

The very large painting was based on more than 100 drawings, made during a stay of several weeks in the Upper Silesian iron mill at Königshütte, the second largest and most modern industrial area in Germany (after the Ruhrgebiet). The Iron Mill was “the” symbol of the industrial age…three thousand workers at seven blast furnaces producing tons of bar iron and steel for the railways.

It is the first painting of a factory and working life in German art, a painting of working class and not court society, which were normally portrayed. Menzel recognized the signs of the times. His image was received by the public as an example of unlimited potential in their new technological era. Later it was used politically by the workers party to showcase the advent of a future age of machines, which degrades man to a simple adjunct of the machine

Highlighted in the painting is the production of iron railroad rails. Menzel shows more than the production process. In the right front workers are eating food that was just delivered by a young woman who looks directly at the observer. In the background on the left is the manager observing and in foreground a worker washing himself. Menzel’s aim in this painting was to show the complicated technical details of the Mill as well as the dramatic effect of the raging fire in open furnaces.

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