Adolph von Menzel - The Iron Rolling Mill

by Alexandra Tuschka


Adolph von Liebermann commissioned a work from the "painter of Prussia" Adolph von Menzel that focused on the conditions of the working class. An unconventional subject - Menzel was actually known for creating paintings of domestic and social life, alongside nature and city views.


From over 100 studies that the painter produced in Königshütte in Silesia, he developed a painting measuring 153 x 253 cm - as imposing as the machine that dominates the picture's background. The "Iron Rolling Mill" shows the interior of a factory hall where railroad rails were manufactured. At its peak, 3,000 workers produced 55,000 tons of pig iron, 43,000 tons of bar iron and railroad rails, 750 tons of raw zinc and 10,000 tons of steel for the railroads here every year.

At first glance, the painting seems disorderly, and yet the composition is a well-thought-out tripartite. The view is dominated by the glowing, sparking iron roller. Here, a white-hot piece of iron is approached by two men to the first roller of the rolling mill. The piece of iron rests on the drawbar, which they lift with combined force. Men with tongs bring the material into the right position. On the other side, other men with tongs and lifting bars await the rolled piece for further processing. This process is multiplied on the rollers in the background and draws attention to the working conditions inside the plant. These are a far cry from modern occupational safety measures - barefoot in clogs, the workers stand at the machine, their shirts rolled up loosely. Only hats and aprons provide makeshift protection from any sparks.


In front on the right - exhausted from the hard work - some workers have sat down for a meal. One of them is drooping his shoulders in exhaustion, the other is greedily biting into one of the fish that a girl has just carried into the picture. She is the only one keeping eye contact with the viewer.

On the left, however, some men are finishing their shift and washing the traces of the workday from their skin. Here, none of the workers has a real identity. Even the fine gentleman in the hat, who may be the director or chief engineer, is typecast. He seems to stroll elegantly, yet uninvolved through the factory.


Making the working class and its conditions the subject of painting was all the more impressive from this point of view. The work does not show a unity of man and machine, but rather their dull collision.


The viewer maintains a certain distance from the action. Discarded tools in the foreground symbolize the picture's boundary. It is also difficult for us to interpret an inner attitude of the painter into what is depicted. The later added subtitle "Modern Cyclops" - as an allusion to the blacksmiths of the fire god Hephaistos - speaks rather for the impression of a dully working mass, which has subordinated itself to the goal of the machine.


Adolph von Menzel - The Iron Rolling Mill

Oil on canvas, 1875, 153 x 253 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin