An ordained Episcopal priest, Johannes Oertel 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, DC. 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.

Following brief residencies in Washington, New York City, and Westerly, Rhode Island, Oertel enlisted with federal forces in the autumn of 1862, noting that “I go from all I value to obey a strange call.” Oertel abhorred the practice of slavery, as evidenced by his correspondence, creative expression, and ministry. In an mournful April 19, 1865 diary entry, Oertel laments the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, while reconciling that loss to the greater victory: “Henceforth our flag must wave over a country undivided and free, where no cruel lash drives a human chattel to their unwilling work; where no being created immortal and redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ is bought and bartered away for money.”

 As a member of the Sixth New York Cavalry under the command of General Ambrose Burnside, he adapted quickly to soldiering—going on reconnaissance, performing picket duty, and recording the scenes of daily activities. He acknowledged that the scope of military life “can never be rendered in a picture, only a hint conveyed, and this I propose to do,” an aim he achieved in The Union Scout and other large-scale studio paintings. In light of Oertel’s allegorical ambitions, The Union Scout is a work 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 Christianity. 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, DC, 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, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the New-York Historical Society, and the Georgia Museum of Art.