Menzel's motto expressed his work ethic and his preoccupation with recording the world. More than 10,000 of his drawings survive. The trailblazer of German Realist painting, Menzel aimed to create images that were more true-to-life and precise than photographs.
Menzel's height--four feet, seven inches--destined him to be an outsider. One of Edgar Degas's friends remembered Menzel at a ball: a small man with glasses, speaking little, drinking champagne, and sketching. Essentially self-taught, by seventeen he was supporting his mother and siblings by working in his late father's lithography business. He began painting in oils in 1837, but the four hundred drawings that he made in 1840 for the History of Frederick the Great truly made his reputation. With large, carefully researched historical pictures featuring an interplay between inventiveness and scrupulous objectivity, he became Germany's most popular artist.
Menzel's broadly painted pictures of the 1840s and 1850s anticipated Impressionism in exploring color and light, but he later rejected the theory. By the 1860s he also regularly depicted contemporary life. Beginning in the 1880s, Menzel received continuing international acclaim.