HARTFORD — How do you make a great work of art? One answer: You throw everything you have into it. Look at this drawing by Adolph von Menzel, which is temporarily on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum, along with a selection of other drawings from the museum’s permanent collection.
It shows an old woman from below and very close up, engaged in something we can only guess at. Whatever it is, she is concentrating hard on it. She is attending to it. She is paying attention.
Menzel takes us so close to her that we feel almost as if we were bursting into her personal space, breaching decorum. “This is not my best angle,” she might have said. “My chin juts out less and my nose doesn’t look so prominent normally.” Except that she wouldn’t say that. She is past such thoughts. She is too deeply absorbed in what she is doing.
To look at this drawing is to be drawn, almost involuntarily, into a similar intimacy, a similar level of attention. And since it is a drawing, made with such basic and visible means, we can not only attend to the image itself but be drawn into the process of its making.
We might notice, for instance, all the places where Menzel uses the texture of the paper to create a roughness, a scattering of light (in the hair, on the arm, in front of the ear), and all the places where, by contrast, he has used a stump to smudge the graphite lines, creating a smoother, more uniform gray (especially across the face).
We notice the contrast between dark, flat, silhouetted massing of the hair and collar at the back of her head and the richly modeled, light-catching, shadow-throwing features of her forehead, cheekbone, chin, and nose. More generally, we notice how Menzel uses all the means at his disposal — distinct lines, smudging, scratching, and the white of the paper itself — to achieve an almost painterly richness. It’s dazzling.
Menzel (1815-1905) was one of the two or three finest German artists of the 19th century. Perhaps only Casper David Friedrich, who was born more than 40 years before him, was greater. Known for his dedication, his social reluctance, and his small stature (at just 4 feet 6 inches tall, he was shorter even than Henri Toulouse-Lautrec), Menzel was greatly admired by Degas.
Degas’s friend and champion, the critic Edmond Duranty, described him as “everywhere independent, sincere, with sure vision, a decisive note that can sometimes be a little brutal. . . . One feels in his work,” he continued, “the nervous shock, the shiver that nature makes us experience.”
Looking, really looking at something, this drawing reminds us, can rise to the level of seeing, and seeing is a form of attending, of paying attention. You can use the word “mindfulness,” or even “prayer,” as a substitute. I prefer — because it can encompass the shock of recognition, of sensuous response described by Duranty — Ortega y Gassett’s formulation: “Love is a phenomenon of attention.”
Study of a Woman in Profile
By Adolph von Menzel
At Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford. 860-278-2670, thewadsworth.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.