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 Johannes Adam Simon Oertel  (1823 - 1909)

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Lived/Active: New Jersey/Virginia / Germany      Known for: genre, portrait, religious and animal painting, etching, carving

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Ad Code: 3
Johannes Adam Simon Oertel
from Auction House Records.
The Union Scout, 1866
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A painter of religious subjects and portraits who traveled extensively, Johannes Oertel was also an engraver, teacher and Episcopal clergyman. He was born in Furth, Bavaria, Germany, and early studied for the ministry but left it when persuaded to study art. He studied at the Polytechnic Institute of Bavaria and in Munich with J.M. Enzing-Muller. In 1848, he emigrated to the United States, first living in Newark, New Jersey where he did portrait painting, taught drawing and engraved banknotes, many of them with Indian portraits.

From 1855 to 1857, he lived in New York City and then moved for one year to Washington DC where he did the design and ceiling decoration including the coat of arts in the skylight of the House of Representatives. He also planned additional decorations for the Capitol Building, but was superceded by Constantino Brumidi, and such bitterness ensued between them that he left Washington DC.

He lived briefly in Westerly, Rhode Island before serving in the Civil War, and then returned to Westerly, where he established a reputation for his religious paintings, especially one completed in 1867 called "Rock of Ages". It was reproduced as a chromolithograph and had wide distribution in many sizes, but he failed to secure his copyright privileges and lost a lot of income because of this omission.

In 1871, he became an ordained priest of the Episcopal Church, and from that time combined his ministry with painting. He served parishes in North Carolina, Florida, New Jersey and New York, and from 1884 to 1886 was in Washington DC and did paintings for churches. Following this period, he moved to Tennessee and was chairman of Christian Art at the University of the South in Sewanee and later created a series on the Redemption for that University. From 1889 to 1891, he was a fine-arts instructor at Washington University in St. Louis, and did artwork for churches as well. Then he returned to Washington DC and lived there and in the environs of Maryland and Virginia until his death in 1909 in Vienna, Virginia.

Peter Falk, "Who Was Who in American Art"
Charles Fairman, "Art & Artists of the Capitol of the United States of America"

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:

A man of both art and religion, Johannes Oertel was born in Furth, Bavaria, near Nuremberg. He attended the Polytechnic Institute of Nuremberg and studied in Munich with J. M. Enzing-Muller, a noted engraver. In 1848, Oertel immigrated to America, settling in Newark, New Jersey, where he established himself as a painter, portraitist, engraver, and carver. He found success with religious and Civil War themes. In 1857, he became involved in the ceiling decoration of the Capitol and moved to Washington, D.C.

Oertel became an ordained Episcopal priest in 1871 and thereafter served as a rector in a number of Episcopal parishes in North Carolina, Florida, New Jersey, and New York. He taught art at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee and at Washington University in St. Louis, painting for churches in both places. He retired to Vienna, Virginia in 1895 and continued to paint religious subjects until his death.

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
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.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

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