Adolph von Menzel’s 1852 painting, A Flute Concert of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci, is a dazzling conjuring trick. This stunning tableau of wealth, refinement, and decadence is typical of Menzel’s subject matter. Menzel sets his scene during the years following the construction of the vast summer palace of Sanssouci, depicting the high-minded Potsdam court of Frederick the Great a century earlier. It is the German cousin of the haunting Palace of Versailles, only slightly more refined than its audacious French counterpart. It is located on the outskirts of Berlin. The palace was designed in the Rococo style to suit King Frederick the Great’s personal taste and frequently hosted musical performances of the type featured in Menzel’s A Flute Concert of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci. This figurative reproduction of the King himself playing the Flute in his music parlour honours the iconic German figure, whose court retinue included C. P. E. Bach, Johann Joachim Quantz, and Franz Benda. Menzel’s adoption of this prestigious subject is accorded the monumentality and scope befitting of such a subject, making it a towering example of imaginative history painting.
After seeing some works by the artist Constable in Berlin, Menzel became fascinated with English Romantic painting, sparking a period of prolific creative output and experimentation. Menzel began to focus his attention on forging scenes of everyday life set in Europe’s sumptuous palaces after joining the teaching staff of the Royal Academy of Art the year after his A Flute Concert of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci. Menzel was a curious innovator in the genre and a fascinating product of his era, part history-painter, part documentarian of departed court life.