Notes on German Culture

“Dinner at the Ball” captures a moment in time during the high point of peace and prosperity in the German Empire

“Dinner at the Ball” captures a moment in time during the high point of peace and prosperity in the German Empire. It was 7 years after the German unification of 1871 and was the era of Kaiser Wilhelm I and his Chancellor Bismarck, who created a booming economy and a foreign policy that produced 43 years of peace in Europe. The warm glow of this era was captured by Adolph Menzel, who created this luxurious candlelit image, “Das Ball Souper”, in 1878. 

As an artist noted for drawings, etchings, and paintings, Adolph Menzel along with Caspar David Friedrich, is considered one of the two most prominent German artists of the 19th century. Although born in the Prussian city of Breslau, Silesia, at age 17 he arrived in Prussia’s capital city of Berlin and lived there for the rest of life. He first worked for his father as a Lithographer, then studied art briefly in 1833, and almost immediately produced commercially successful drawings and wood engravings. Eventually, Menzel taught himself … unaided by anyone else… the art of painting that we still admire today. 

On a social level, Menzel travelled in order to find subjects for his art, to visit exhibitions, and to meet with other artists. But despite his many friendships, Menzel spent most of his life in Berlin unattached to anyone in an emotional way. He probably felt socially estranged for physical reasons…Menzel had a large head and a short body…he was only four foot six inches. He wrote in his last will and testament: “Not only have I remained unmarried, throughout my life I have also renounced all relations with the other sex…In short, there is a lack of any kind of self-made bond between me and the outside world.” 

Although his paintings rarely left Germany…they were quickly gathered up by museums and patrons in Germany…he garnered recognition from the French avant-garde. Edgar Degas admired and copied his work, calling him “the greatest living master” and Louis Edmond Duranty wrote that “The man who has measured with a compass the buttons on a uniform from the time of Frederick, when it is a matter of depicting a modern shoe, waistcoat, or coiffure, does not make them by approximations but totally, in their absolute form and without smallness of means. He puts there everything that is called for by the character (of the object). Free, large, and rapid in his drawing, no draftsman is as definitive as he”.

In Germany he received many honors, but the highest honor came in 1898, when he became the first painter to receive the Order of the Black Eagle. For the last seven years of his life he proudly wore the same large Breast Star that he so often portrayed in his renderings of Frederick the Great. In addition, by receiving the Order of the Black Eagle, Menzel was also raised to the nobility, becoming “Adolph von Menzel”. He was also made a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Royal Academy in London. 

Adolph von Menzel …in an excerpt from Anton von Werner’s painting of the unveiling of Berlin’s Wagner Memorial

After his death in 1905 in Berlin, his funeral arrangements were directed by the Kaiser, who walked behind his coffin.

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