German artist's £3.2m masterpiece comes to Britain

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The Independent Online

The National Gallery has acquired a major work by the 19th century German artist Adolph Menzel, whose work is thought to have anticipated the French Impressionists but remained hidden behind the Iron Curtain throughout the Cold War.

Menzel's An Afternoon in the Tuileries Gardens which was bought from Germany for £3.2m, went on show to the public at the National Gallery yesterday, becoming the first work by the painter to enter a British art collection.

Menzel is thought to have painted the work, which depicts the bustling social scene of the Tuileries Gardens in 19th century Paris, after seeing Edouard Manet's 1862 Music in the Tuileries Gardens at an exhibition in the city in 1867.

However the two works are executed in strikingly different styles - a contrast that will be highlighted when they are hung alongside each other in Room 41 of the National Gallery in a fortnight's time.

An Afternoon in the Tuileries Gardens hung in Dresden's Galerie Neue Meister for 70 years after being bought during the Nazi era from the family of Fritz Meyer - a Berlin Jewish banker who bought the painting from Menzel himself in 1868. During the Cold War, the painting remained virtually off-limits to Western visitors because it was located in a East German city behind the Iron Curtain.

"Menzel was a kind of secret kept within German and particularly East German borders," Christopher Riopelle, the curator of 19th century art at the National Gallery said. "It was only people who had gone and seen his work in those exhibitions who realised that this was a remarkable artist who was simply unknown outside his country."

Concern about the Nazi-era sale of the painting prompted the Dresden gallery to return the work to Meyer's descendants in 2005. The family then sold the work to an American collector in partnership with a Munich art dealer who recently resold the painting to the National Gallery.

Menzel was regarded as a painter to the courts of the kaisers. His reputation in Germany stems largely from his works depicting Frederick the Great. He was a printmaker and a draughtsman by trade and only took up oil painting when he was 30.

Many of his lesser-known sketches and paintings are devoted to detailed studies of low and high life in his home city, Berlin. It was not until the early 20th century that critics realised, in many of his works painted during the 1840s, Menzel had developed an early Impressionist style some 30 years earlier than the French Impressionists themselves.

"It has long been a priority for the National Gallery to acquire more German art as it's felt that it has been under-represented in our 19th century collection," Mr Riopelle said. "Menzel was an artist it was very important for us to acquire and his Tuileries painting is one of his most significant."

Observer of high and low life

ADOLPH MENZEL (1815-1905)

He is widely recognised as the leading German artist of the second half of the 19th century.

Active first as a printmaker, and a dazzling draftsman throughout his prolific career, he turned to oil painting only after he turned 30. When they were first exhibited early in the 20th century, his oil sketches of the 1840s displayed an impressive prescience, showing that he had successfully anticipated French Impressionism a full 30 years before the Impressionists themselves.

His minutely-observed scenes of modern life established him as an excellent observer of high and low life in his adopted city, Berlin, which at that time was undergoing radical changes that would transform it into one of the world's great cities.

Menzel also travelled restlessly across Europe in pursuit of visual and aesthetic stimulation. An Afternoon in the Tuileries Gardens is the result of a visit to Paris.