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Iron Rolling Mill

Nationalgalerie, Berlin


Françoise Foster-Hahn explains how Menzel’s Iron Rolling Mill represented a new vision of industry and how the new German government used it to present a modern, progressive vision of German history:

”In all these industrial portraits [William Bell Scott, Iron and Coal, Industry of the Tyne, 1861  (Wallington Hall, Northumberland); John Ferguson Weir, The Gun Foundry, 1866 (Putnam County Historical Society); Paul Meyerheim, History of the Locomotive, 1872 (Stadtmuseum, Berlin )] the physical realty and the product of the company move to the center; often the owners are included, as workers or observers, along with their families….

Menzel, to the contrary, concentrated his eye on the worker, the modern technical production process and, as he stressed in his letter to the National Gallery, on the relatively new phenomenon of shift work. We can read the painting as a triptych, a complete composition representing the manufacture of railway tracks in the Königshütte in Upper Silesia.”

“The volatility of the 1870s can be detected in the reception history of the Iron Rolling Mill. One should remember that the picture was purchased by Liebermann a year after it was completed and was subsequently transferred from his private gallery to a public museum, Berlin’s new National Gallery. There it was not merely a dramatic showpiece in the quickly growing Menzel collection – together with the Flute Concert… – but also an outstanding element in the overall staging of the museum. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the opening exhibition of the National Gallery presented a new version of German history, a museum orientation in which history was constructed in pictures for the public of the new capital. The young empire had to discover a collective national identity, and the setting of the National Gallery could present a history in pictures that extended from [Peter von] Cornelius’s cartoons for the Campo Santo to Menzel’s Friedrich pictures to paintings commemorating the battles of Königgrätz and Sedan [during the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71]. In this exhibition strategy, whose tone was established by the monumental paintings of Königgrätz and Sedan, Menzel’s pictures from the era of Friedrich the Great could effortlessly be interpreted as representing the ‘national recovery’ and the iron rolling mill workers ‘as the agitated workers from the military battles of 1870.’

Numerous reports about the Iron Rolling Mill that began to appear even before the work was completed… is an index for how Menzel’s theme of industrial work hit a nerve during these years. The Iron Rolling Mill is the only picture in Germany that vibrates with the political, social, and artistic discourses of these years and which – exhibited as a grand rhetorical gesture in a public museum – had and still has a provocative effect on the public…”

Françoise Foster-Hahn, “Ethos und Eros: Adolph Menzels Eisenwalzwerk und Atelierwand,“ Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, vol. 41 (1999): 143, 146-7.


Related Works:

Grinding Shop at the Blacksmith's in Hofgastein, 1881 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

Similar Subjects by Other Artists:

Maximilien Luce, The Steel Works, 1895

About the Artist

Born: Breslau, Silesia (now Wrocław, Poland), 8 December 1815
Died: Berlin, 9 February 1905
Nationality: German