Adolph Menzel 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.
His popularity in his native country, owing especially to politically propagandistic works, was such that few of his major paintings left Germany, as many were quickly acquired by museums in Berlin. Menzel's graphic works and drawings were more widely disseminated; these, along with informal paintings not initially intended for display, have largely accounted for his posthumous reputation.
Menzel was born in Breslau. His father was a lithographer and intended to educate his son as a professor; however, he would not thwart his taste for art. After resigning his teaching post, Menzel senior set up a lithographic workshop in 1818. In 1830 the family moved to Berlin, and in 1832 Adolph was forced to take over the lithographic business on the death of his father. In 1833, he studied briefly at the Berlin Academy of Art, where he drew from plaster casts and ancient sculptures; thereafter Menzel was self-taught. Sachse of Berlin published his first work in 1833, an album of pen-and-ink drawings to illustrate Goethe's little poem.
From 1839 to 1842, he produced 400 drawings, largely introducing to Germany the technique of wood engraving, to illustrate the Geschichte Friedrichs des Grossen (History of Frederick the Great) by Franz Kugler. Menzel also begun to study, unaided, the art of painting, and he soon produced a great number and variety of pictures. His paintings consistently demonstrated keen observation and honest workmanship in subjects dealing with the life and achievements of Frederick the Great, and scenes of everyday life. When invited to paint The Coronation of William I at Koenigsberg, he produced an exact representation of the ceremony without regard to the traditions of official painting. During Menzel's life, his paintings' political implications were appreciated by Otto von Bismarck and William I, and after his death they were appropriated for use as electoral posters by Adolf Hitler.
These historical illustrations anticipated the literal qualities of early Impressionism. Private drawings and watercolors made of dead and dying soldiers in 1866 on the battlefields of the Austro-Prussian War are unsparing in their realism have been described as unique in German art of the time. The paintings which were available to the public garnered recognition not only within Germany, but from the French avant-garde as well: Edgar Degas admired and copied his work.
In Germany he received many honors, and in 1898 became the first painter to be admitted to the Order of the Black Eagle; by virtue of receiving the Order, Menzel was 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. After his death in 1905 in Berlin, his funeral arrangements were directed by the Kaiser, who walked behind his coffin.