Room with a Balcony, 1845
Oil on Cardboard. 58 x 47 cm
Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
I regret missing the chance to see this painting in 2001 when it was shown in the London National Gallery in the exhibition of 19thC paintings Spirit of an Age: Paintings from the Berlin Nationalgalerie. Menzel is perhaps best known for his work as a “court” painter following the history of Prussia from the time of Frederick the Great (since Menzel did the illustrations for a popular book on Frederick's life) to the splendour of the court of King Wilhelm I.
This painting of an interior shows a different side of his artistic talent. One of a number of oil sketches from the 1840’s that explored his Berlin apartment and the views from its windows. Painted purely for his own pleasure, these uncannily modern works are argued to presage the French Impressionists through its use of light and the loose brushwork. Menzel didn’t go to Paris until in 1855 he visited the Exposition Universelle and saw Courbet's 'Pavillon du Réalisme' and is painted 30 years before the exhibition of impressionism in 1874.
Not having seen the painting yet I cannot comment on the paint handling, but it does look as though he has applied it freely using a variety of brushstrokes that suggests objects rather than closely defining them. Despite being a classed as a sketch (it wasn’t shown until a commemorative exhibition was held at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin after Menzel’s death in 1905) it is signed and dated on the front indicating that he felt that his surroundings were a valid subject to paint rather than just an exercise. It is unusual for a painting of an interior of this period, to be neither occupied nor a formal study for a still life. This invites us to focus on the atmosphere of the room rather than on a subject within it.
The balcony doors are open and the curtains billow inwards on the breeze through the window. Today that could be read as a sexual metaphor, but I suspect he was just observing reality rather than trying to imply any moral narrative. The edge of a rug intrudes into the image from the left and a streak of sunlight brightens the floor and shimmers on the empty wall. It is a strange patch of light and suggests that a picture that was hung on the wall has been removed. There are two formal chairs turned away from each other either side of a long mirror in which we see the reflections of a sofa with a gold-framed picture hanging above it. For me it is the positioning of these chairs that give the painting a melancholic aura; whether intended or not I read them as a metaphor for an uncommunicative couple, facing away, and arguing despite the languid quality of the light suggesting a beautiful summer’s day.