Artists & Architects

Johannes Oertel1823 - 1909

place of birth: Germany , Furth
place of death: United States of America , Vienna

ANA 1856; NA 1884

Oertel planned to devote his life to missionary work. However, demonstrating advanced talent as a draughtsman during his youth, he was encouraged by his tutor, the Rev. L"ehe, to pursue an artistic career instead. He received his firt formal instruction in Munich, where he was a pupil of the painter-engraver J.M. Enzingmller. Under Enzingmller's tutelage, Oertel became especially adept in the art of engraving on steel. Around the same time, he was introduced to the work of the German painter Wilhelm von Kaulbach, whose large-scale historical compositions would exert an enduring influence on Oertel's later artistic development. After living in Munich and Nuremberg for a number of years, Oertel immigrated to the United States in 1848, when he was 25 years old. He initially settled in Newark, NJ, earning his living by teaching drawing at a local seminary for women. He later supported his family by engraving bank notes, colouring photographs as well as teaching. He also established a reputation as a painter of religious subjects, frequently producing detailed wood carvings as accompaniments to his work. During this period, Oertel was active in Newark and Madison, NJ, New York City, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Westerly, RI. He spent the years 1857-58 in Washington, DC, where he designed the decorations for the ceiling of the House of Representatives. However, due to a disagreement with officials regarding the management of the project, Oertel's designs were never executed. In 1871, while living in Lenoir, North Carolina, Oertel was ordained a priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church. Until his retirement in 1895 he taught art and served in parishes thoughout the South, including the Carolinas, the District of Columbia, Tennessee, Missouri and Maryland. He passed his final years in the village of Vienne (Vienna?), Virginia, where he died at the age of eighty-six. The University of the South (Sewanee, Tenn.) where Oertel once taught art, possesses much of his best work.(ABG: see your side notes) Although he painted some portraits and landscape subjects (the latter attracting much critical acclaim), Oertel's primary concern was scriptural art. An intensely devout man, his paintings are characterized by an overt use of religious symbolism. He also emphasized drawing and meticulous attention to detail. His debt to Kaubach is evident in his strong interest in dramatic effect, achieved through the manipulation of line and colour. Oertel's most famous religious work, the Rock of Ages, exists in several versions. It became extremely popular during the second half of the nineteenth century through chromolithography and photograph reproductions. Oertel's paintings were first shown at the National Academy in 1854. He was elected an Associate member in 1856, while residing, according to the catalogue of that year's annual exhibition, at 806 Broadway. However his membership was cancelled in 1884, since he had moved from New York City to Washington, DC late in 1856 (ABG: you state "not logical"). Although he continued to submit pictures to the annual exhibitions after 1884, Oertel's work was frequently turned down by the Academy's Selection Committee. In 1898, discovering that his Jesus or Barabbus (1898) was not to be included in that year's annual, he wrote to a friend: The modern New York art world has once more given me unmistabkable evidence that I would be a deal wiser for hauling in my sensitive antennae for aye and retiring into my little shell as the only fit place for a presumptuous professor of the crucified and forever there. That despised, thorn-crowned Nazarene is no more welcome to-day that he was 18 centuries ago. By the inclosed [sic] can see with what subject I have dared to test the discriminating judges of the National Academy, 'The Committee of Selection,' and this very day notice came from my agent that the picture had been returned to him. To be sure this is exactly what I anticipated. Such things have longer a place in modern exhibitions. The Academy is revolutionized - dear old fogy [sic] affair--and got into the control of the Parisian-taught youngsters; the former respectable, sober, conservative institution is gone. As the above comments would suggest, Oertel's highly didactic approach simply did not appeal to a younger generation of Paris-trained artists. There is no reference to his death in the Academy Mintues.