Savannah native Augusta Oelschig is known as a painter of the American Scene, politically-charged commentaries, and, later, highly personal experiments in abstraction. Her lengthy career spanned the time from her entrance to college through the late 1970s, when declining health slowed her production. Although her education and career path have much in common with other Southern artists of her generation, Oelschig stands out for incorporating social criticism and themes of racial injustice in her work.
As a young girl, Oelschig benefitted from the Savannah public schools’ strong art curriculum pioneered by Lila Cabaniss and then took private lessons with highly regarded painter Emma Cheves Wilkins. Following two years at a local junior college, in 1937 she transferred to the University of Georgia whose art department was directed by the renowned instructor Lamar Dodd. An iconic figure in the history of art instruction in Georgia, Dodd was a tremendous inspiration to Oelschig and her fellow students. Dodd would become a great advocate of Oelschig’s work and prophesied her future success in the catalogue to her first solo museum exhibition held in 1941 at Savannah’s Telfair Academy: “The progress that she has made in recent years has been most gratifying. Her creative urge and vision should lead her to even greater heights.” After graduation, Oelschig returned to Savannah, where she studied with Henry Lee McFee and earned particular acclaim for paintings depicting contemporary African American life.
An extended trip to Mexico in 1947 marked a crucial turning point in Oelschig’s career. While there, she interacted with noted muralists Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. She later recalled spending hours observing Rivera paint and pontificate. Inspired by the political and social content of the Mexican artists’ work, Oelschig returned to Savannah in 1948 with plans for a mural documenting the history of Georgia to be installed at Savannah High School. Her proposal studies—which included searing depictions of Ku Klux Klan members whipping writhing African American figures—was rejected by school officials. Disheartened by this decision and her home state’s seeming unwillingness to embrace the progressive and challenging work she sought to create, Oelschig moved to New York City later that same year.
Oelschig remained in New York for fourteen years, painting and exhibiting work in the realist style, despite the widespread popularity of abstraction in the city at that time. After her return to Savannah in 1962, she offered private art instruction and experimented with abstraction, but primarily continued to produce the American Scene images for which she is best known. A review of a career-spanning exhibition of Oelschig’s work that opened just weeks after the artist’s death described her aesthetic as having “a distinctive style that is both steeped in the Southern Gothic tradition and remarkably unique.”
Portrait of a Young Man does not contain the type of social commentary that so sharply distinguishes Oelschig’s work from that of her peers, but it does demonstrate her skills as a sensitive portraitist and effective colorist. She enlivens the canvas by utilizing complementary colors as her accents, with the bright yellow of the fruit in the figure’s hands playing off the purple flowers in the vase just behind him. At the same time, the ochre shade of the figure’s jacket is repeated in the background of the far right of the canvas. The boy’s high, chiseled cheekbones and full lips give him a seductive beauty, and his elongated arms and fingers are in keeping with Oelschig’s tendency to lengthen her subjects’ forms.