Throughout his active career, Johannes Oertel, who was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1871, aspired to be a painter of powerful canvases illustrating the salvation of mankind. His early exposure to the monumental paintings executed by the German romantic painter Friedrich Kaulbach shaped a body of work that reflected an extraordinary talent and devout faith.
A native of Bavaria, Oertel first studied engraving at the Nuremburg Polytechnic Institute before moving on to Munich. One of many German artists who fled their country during the diaspora caused by the revolutions of 1848, Oertel arrived in America that year, living first in New Jersey, where he taught drawing and engraved bank notes. The artist recounted in a diary that his first twenty years in America were spent “struggling in debt…most of the time for daily bread, a striving under many difficulties & discouragements for the attainment of an idea.” In 1857, Oertel was one of the artists invited by Captain Montgomery C. Meigs to decorate the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Under the direction of Constantino Brumidi, the artist earned six dollars a day. This commission came to an abrupt halt after only a year when Oertel objected to Brumidi’s management.
While living briefly in Rhode Island during the Civil War, Oertel enlisted with federal forces. The Union Scout was surely informed by his experience in that role. In light of Oertel’s allegorical ambitions, it is a painting which may be read as a moment of awareness in a time of great crisis. The alert rider’s horse seems to falter even as he fixes with great purpose upon a distant site.
For the balance of his years, Oertel worked throughout the South, executing altar commissions, teaching, and serving as a parish priest following ordination. The dream of creating inspirational art was finally realized in 1867 when his painting Rock of Ages was distributed as a chromolithograph. The dramatic depiction of a drowning woman clinging desperately to a stone cross in a storm-tossed sea became a cherished item in many homes and churches. Oertel’s crowning personal achievement was the execution of four massive canvases depicting the central truths of the Christian faith. Begun in 1895 and completed six years later when the artist was seventy-eight years of age, these works—rich in religious symbolism and meticulous detail—were given to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where Oertel had taught and ministered. His final teaching assignment was at Washington University in St. Louis, from 1889-1891, before he retired to the greater Washington, D.C. area.
Elected as an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1856, Oertel’s membership in the organization was canceled in 1884 due to his lack of participation in annual exhibitions. When the artist did comply by submitting paintings of religious subject matter, those examples were frequently rejected. Nonetheless, Oertel’s work is represented in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, New-York Historical Society, and Georgia Museum of Art.