My favourite painting: John Tusa

'A puzzle. But feel the air, breathe it.'

Balcony Room, 1845, by Adolph Menzel (1815–1905), 23in by 18½in, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany.

John Tusa says:
There is sun; it streams through the window. The breeze blows the curtains into the room, snagging on the top of the opened French windows. The air is – must be – balmy. A drowsy summer afternoon, redolent of content. There are questions to be asked. Why is the facing wall only partly painted? Why do the two chairs stand back to back as if rejecting one another? The part of the room we see has a deserted look, the part in the mirror speaks of occupation. A puzzle. But feel the air, breathe it.

Sir John Tusa is a journalist, broadcaster and former managing director of the BBC World Service and the Barbican Centre. His memoir, Making a Noise, is published next week.

John McEwen comments on Balcony Room:
Adolph Menzel, the most famous German painter during the 19th century, is virtually unknown internationally, most of his work remaining in Germany.

His father had a lithographic workshop, the family moving to Berlin when Adolph was 15. Two years later, his father died and he had to manage the business, providing for his mother and two younger siblings. He was notoriously small (4½ft) and, perhaps to compensate, a ferocious worker – ‘Your talent you have from God, in an artist I value only the effort’ – and an obsessive draughtsman, able to draw with both his left and right hand, nulla dies sine linea (‘no day without a line’) his motto. He first made his name as an illustrator.

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In the 1840s, Menzel began to paint. Among his early efforts were a number of informal subjects in a spontaneous style. Most of these ‘private’ paintings remained in his studio until he died. By contrast, his public reputation was earned over a long life, with meticulously detailed formal pictures of historical events, such as the coronation of his emperor, Wilhelm I, which took four years to complete.

His reception was unprecedented: the first German artist to be ennobled. Abroad, he was awarded the Legion of Honour and was elected an honorary Royal Academician. The French poet Jules Laforgue described him as ‘no taller than a cuirassier-guard’s boot, bedecked with pendants and honours… moving among all these personages like a gnome’.

It was after Menzel died that the ‘private’ paintings came to light, declaring him, for some, a forerunner of French Impressionism and thus contributing to the course of Modern art. Balcony Room is now considered his masterpiece.