Famous Artists, History Highlights

Frederick the Great playing the flute, accompanied by C. P. E. Bach

This candlelit scene depicts an 18th century “Flute Concert at Sanssouci”. It’s a painting by Adolph von Menzel, showing Frederick II of Prussia, known to history as Frederick the Great, playing the flute in his music room at Sanssouci, accompanied by C. P. E. Bach on the harpsichord.  As a musician, Frederick wrote 4 symphonies and about 100 sonatas. On a social level, he associated with Voltaire and many famous philosophers and artists of the time.

However, as King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, Frederick is best known for his military victories, his reorganization of Prussian armies, his innovative drills and tactics, and his final success against great odds in the Seven Years’ War. He shifted leadership of Germany away from Austria and made Prussia the most powerful German state. He became known as Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Grosse) and was nicknamed Der Alte Fritz (“Old Fritz”).

Frederick the Great, as a result of his many victories against great odds, established himself as Europe’s premier general and his men as Europe’s most accomplished soldiers. He dominated the 18th Century in German history. His strengthening of Prussia in the 18th century made it a world power, enabling Prussia to unite all German states, except Austria, into the modern nation of Germany in 1871.

As a military genius Frederick fought many of the great powers of the time simultaneously and won. This was an incredible feat…his relatively small Kingdom of Prussia won a seven year long war, fought against France from the west, Russia from the east, Sweden from the north, and Austria and Saxony from the south. An example of his prowess was the Battle of Leuthen in December 1757. Frederick’s Prussian army used maneuver and terrain to decisively defeat a much bigger Austrian army under Prince Charles of Lorraine. Frederick’s key to victory was pre-battle operational maneuvers…to hide his intentions, achieve complete surprise and then strike a massive blow at the enemy’s weakest point… a tactic of “Bewegungskrieg”, more commonly known to us as Blitzkrieg. The Austrians fell back into Bohemia, saving Silesia for the Prussian state.

During his 46 years as King, Frederick was also a benevolent ruler, building hundreds of schools and making attendance compulsory. He made great agricultural reforms and increased productive land by drying-out marshes and bringing in 300,000 immigrants to farm the land. He was the first European ruler to recognize the value of the potato, which before him was considered to be a devilish plant, only grown for its flowers. He also banned duels, torture and corporal punishment… and he was religiously tolerant.

When Napoleon conquered Prussia, he went to Frederick the Great’s grave and said “Gentlemen, if this man were still alive I would not be here”.

The painter of the “Flute Concert at Sanssouci”, Adolph von Menzel, 1815 to 1905, was a German artist noted for drawings, etchings, and paintings. Along with Caspar David Friedrich, he is considered one of the two most prominent German artists of the 19th century, and was the most successful artist of his era in Germany.

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