Between them, the National Gallery and the Kupferstichkabinett have in their collecitons most of the paintings and works on paper that the young Adolph Menzel (1815-1905) created depicting the life of Frederick the Great. Besides the many famous pictures from this time, executed with an enthusiastic eye for detail, we also have hundreds of studies, working proofs and woodblocks from the artist's numerous major illustrative series.
The most popular of these series were his wood engravings, totalling just under 400, produced to illustrate the book Geschichte Friedrichs des Großen (or: 'History of Frederick the Great') by Franz Kugler, published in 1840. Thanks to this work, Menzel not only acquired intimate knowledge of the subject, but also gradually developed an image of the monarch that he subsequently varied in a series of paintings over the following years, which, apart from three works lost in the war, will also go on show for the first time together in the exhibition. They portray Frederick II as an enlightened monarch, as a resolute supreme military commander, as a friend of philosophy and the arts: in short a view of Frederick II imbued with bourgeois virtues, which more than half a century after the king's death, served as a role model for Menzel's day.
The exhibition is preceded by a chapter containing depictions of Frederick the Great by artists who actually met him: Antoine Pesne and, most importantly, Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki. These pictures served to fuel the mythology surrounding the Prussian king in his own lifetime. Historical and contemporary themes vividly interlock in Menzel's work and the exhibition thus ends with depictions of the actual age he lived in. In Menzel's hands, past and present are captured with equal vigour and attention to detail, presenting us with an image of the fleeting and chance moments of life.
The exhibition is being held as part of a wider series of events called 'Art - King - Enlightenment', coordinated by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in honour of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Frederick the Great on 24 January 2012.
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