( 1823 – 1909 )

Johannes A. S. Oertel

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Johannes Adam Simon Oertel (1823-1909) was born in Furth, Bavaria, in 1823.  Raised in a Lutheran household, his early education was to become a clergyman and pastor.  However, his evident artistic talent led him to study art.  He travelled to Munich and received artistic training from the engraver, Johann M. Enzing-Muller (1808-88), Wilhelm Von Kaulbach (1805-74), a painter of academic historical, religious, and allegorical murals, and Peter Von Cornelius (1784-1867), one of the chief proponents of the “Nazarene School” of religious and history painting.  Enzing-Muller’s training afforded Oertel the means to earn a living as an artist wherever he might travel but the influence of the Nazarenes shaped the artist’s aesthetic and spiritual values.

Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869) was the most renowned of the Nazarene painters who were particularly influential upon Oertel.  Overbeck led a group of Austrians to Rome in the early 1800s where they immersed themselves in the Old Masters history paintings, their works of Roman Catholic devotion, and their techniques of church decoration.  He combined religious zeal, Romantic attitudes toward individual self-expression, and Old Masters techniques to secure patronage in Rome, Munich, and Berlin during the first half of the nineteenth century.  Peter von Cornelius was another Nazarene but he adopted the values of the movement to the creation of large history paintings and specifically fresco painting.  His influence upon Oertel was not only one of subjects but also the scale of his works.  While Cornelius was a fresco painter Oertel had no resources in the United States that would permit him to employ such a complicated, labor-intensive technique.  Instead, he created large works on canvas, constructed reredos or altarpieces, and fixed canvas paintings directly to church walls using mastics. 

Oertel imported the chief tenets of the Nazarene School to the United States and adapted its largely Roman Catholic subjects---Old and New Testament stories, saints’ lives and the lives of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and allegories---to Episcopal churches in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, and other eastern states.  In America he devoted Old World talents and modern exuberant Christian faith to the adornment of rural parish churches.  He merged faith and talent and exercised his art in churches where his paintings and altarpieces both inspired and instructed generations of faithful Episcopalians.  Thanks to Oertel, several small episcopal churches in the South contain remarkable examples of religious art that might well have been found in Italy, France, and Germany. 

In 1848 Oertel immigrated to the United States in the company of Enzing-Muller, who also had a career in America as an engraver.  Settling in Newark, New Jersey, Oertel taught drawing, painted portraits and genre pieces, engraved banknotes, and illustrated books.  One of his most famous book illustrations was “Defense of Fort Moultrie, S.C.,” published in J.A Spencer’s History of the United States from the Earliest Period to the Administration of James Buchanan (New York, NY: Johnson, Fry, 1858) which depicted an episode in the Battle of Fort Moultrie, June 28, 1776, when Sergeant William Jasper restored the South Carolina flag to the parapet of Fort Moultrie after the flagpole had been shot away.  His engraving is one of the most famous depictions of that event and is still often reproduced.  In 1857 he secured some commissions to design and execute ceiling decorations for the House of Representatives Chamber of United States Capitol.

In 1851 he wed Julia Adelaide Torrey of Newark and they were the parents of four children.  Their son John Frederick Oertel (b. 1856) published a biography of his father, A Vision Realized: the Life Story of Rev. J. A. Oertel, D.D., Artist, Priest, Missionary in 1917.  The work is strongly grounded upon primary sources and has been reprinted several times in facsimile editions.  It is essential to any study of the artist and his works for it contains numerous illustrations of his father’s works that are lost or unlocated.  Another son, Theodore Eugene Oertel (b. 1864) was a physician and another keeper of his father’s legacy.  He made important gifts of his father’s paintings to the University of the South and to other institutions.

In the 1850s Oertel conceived a plan to create a series of large paintings of historic events in the Old and New Testaments that were ante types (symbolic forecasts) of Jesus Christ’s redemption of mankind through his teachings, his death, and resurrection.  Renaissance Old Masters had employed this foreshadowing when they filled the churches and public buildings of Europe with depictions of Adam and Eve, prophets, and other scenes from the Old Testament.  Christian typology was manifest in Calvinist theology and biblical exegesis as well as in iconography.  Much of the work of the Nazarene painters was based upon the use of typology.  A bedrock belief of Christianity was that Christ had entered the world to fulfill the covenant God had made with the Jewish people in the Old Testament and by his death and resurrection had created a New Testament covenant with all mankind.  Oertel coupled his passionate Christian faith with his training and temperament when he began work on a series of paintings that he called “Redemption.”  For most of his life he worked on four paintings that were intended to convey the history of mankind from the view of religious history.  He titled them “Dispensation of the Promise and the Law,” “he Redeemer,” “Era of the Holy Spirit,” and “Consummation of Redemption.”  The scale of these paintings was very large.  When completed in the 1890s the paintings served as  a visual record of what John Milton described as the theme of his great poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained: To explain the ways of God to man.”  Oertel began work on “Dispensation of the Promise and the Law” in 1868 but did not finish the painting until 1897.  The painting contained more than 140 figures from the Old Testament.  Within two years he had completed the remaining three works in the series.  Despite an offer of $10,000 for “Dispensations” the artist donated the works to the University of the South in order to keep them together.  This plan was a driving force throughout his life even as he took other paths of employment and artistic endeavors. For more than fifty years Oertel worked to create heroic size paintings that depicted the central truths of his Christian faith. 

During the American Civil War Oertel attached himself to the Union Army of the Potomac, not as a “special artist” like so many nineteenth-century American artists but with the intention to prepare sketches for large paintings that depicted camp and battle scenes.  However, he did create some works that were published in Harper’s Weekly as woodblock prints.  His “Convalescent Soldiers Marching by the U.S. Capitol” was published on the cover of the November 15, 1862, issue of Harper’s Weekly (p. 721) and “Interchange of Civilities between Two Mounted Pickets” appeared in the February 7, 1863, issue of the magazine (p. 93).  .  He traveled with the army for more than a year making studies.  After leaving the army in 1863 he created several large works from his studies that are found in private and public collections.  Among them are “The Union Scout” (1866) in the George D. Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, SC, and “Army Supply Trains in the Shenandoah Valley” (1866) at the Fenton Historical Society, Jamestown, NY.  Oertel depicted horses in these and many other paintings, including several of Native Americans.  Among these are “The Marauders” (1860), in the collection of the Thomas Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK, and “Capturing Wild Horses” (1855), in a private collection.  Draft horses are a prominent feature of “Yadkin River Valley.”   

Oertel’s missionary impulse had never left him and it became manifest while he was living in Rhode Island.  Confirmed in the Episcopal Church in 1852, he became a deacon in 1867, and was ordained a priest in 1871.  By then he and his family had relocated to Lenoir, NC, were he had gone to assume the deacon’s post at Saint James Episcopal Church.  Upon his ordination he became rector of Saint James Church.

Oertel’s move was inspired by his acquaintance with Laura Lenoir Norwood (1840-1916), a young woman from two prominent Lenoir families who had studied art with him in Tarrytown, NY.  According to Norwood, the artist-deacon could not only minister to the spiritual welfare of the small group of Episcopalians in Caldwell County but also live in a region of great natural beauty to inspire his art.  He and his family lived in Lenoir from 1869 to 1874 and maintained strong connections with North Carolina for the rest of the artist’s life.  At Lenoir he built a studio adjacent to the church and painted heroic size works of religious history, genre scenes, and portraits.  In 1872 he built a chapel of rest (called chapel of ease in colonial America) at Happy Valley, a small community eight miles up the Yadkin River from Lenoir.  In addition to the works that Oertel created for Saint James, in 1932 his son Theodore gave the parish church fifteen more of his father’s paintings, one engraving, and two large cartoons---the paper stencils used to create frescoes and other large-scale works on canvas or walls.  Cartoons rarely survive the rigors of time and use because they are generally considered ephemeral sketches, useful but not artworks in their own right.  In addition, as works on light paper they are liable to deterioration and require great care in preservation.  The Oertel Art Collection at Saint James Church has been photographed, digitized, and is available on a variety of internet sources.  

The other large collection of Oertel’s works is at the University of the South, Sewanee, TN.  The artist was a professor of art and dogmatic theology at Sewanee during the 1880s.  In 1902 he donated to Sewanee his four great “Redemption” paintings.  He and his sons also donated other works as well, making the University of the South another important repository of the man’s works. 

The artist was a skilled cabinetmaker and wood-carver.  In addition to painting reredos---French retables and Spanish retablos---religious paintings on canvas or wood and affixed to walls or frames---he built wooden altarpieces and church furniture for Saint James and other churches.  For the next twenty years he served parishes in North Carolina, Florida, Sewanee, Tennessee, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., all the while painting landscapes, animal subjects, and most of all large-scale religious paintings, and accepting commissions to install retables.  Among the churches today that possess Oertel’s works are the Church of the Incarnation, Washington, DC; Saint Luke, Jackson, TN; Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Bel Air, MD; All Saints Chapel, University of the South, Sewanee, TN;  Cathedral of Saint John, Quincy, IL; and Saint Mary Episcopal Church, Emmorton, MD. 

After retiring from the active priesthood in 1895, Oertel completed his major religious paintings and once again attempted to sell his landscape and animal paintings, most of them completed two and three decades earlier. Although he secured the assistance of Macbeth Galleries in New York in this enterprise, Oertel discovered that his paintings were no longer in fashion and failed to attract buyers. He died in his home at Vienna, Virginia, in 1909. 

The setting of Oertel’s Yadkin River scene is believed to be Happy Valley just north of Lenoir, NC.  While at Saint James Episcopal Church his duties extended to Happy Valley, where he constructed the chapel of rest to serve the small episcopal community in the area.  Caldwell County is the site of the headwaters of the Yadkin, courses southward through several North Carolina counties to join the Pee Dee River system of North and South Carolina.  There are several known fords on the Yadkin downstream from Lenoir but no historical fords have been identified in the Happy Valley region.  This painting bears many hallmarks of Oertel’s themes:  the horsed drawing the wagon are prominent and well-executed and the mingling of human activity in a natural setting heightens the drama of the scene.  The lone rider in the background may be a rear guard for the small party or he may be in pursuit of the group.  This feature may bolster our interpretation of the scene as a North Carolina version of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt to escape King Herod’s murderous decree.  Certainly, the central features of the painting—a young woman and child---bring to mind Mary and her son Jesus. 

Obscured during much of the twentieth century because of changing taste in American art, Oertel’s more than one thousand known works epitomize an era that revered ecclesiastical art.  His mission as a clergyman complemented his tireless labor to give visual representation to the events of Christian history and to the essential message of Christianity that the life and death of Jesus Christ had redeemed mankind from original sin.  History and faith had been the wellspring of most of the art created in Europe prior to the eighteenth century; and Oertel---trained in Old Master methods and steeped in Christian faith---transported the form and substance of religious art to nineteenth-century America. 



“Chronology of the Life and Art of Rev. Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, American Painter, 1823-1909.” www.academia.edu/10330107/A Chronology.  Accessed 5 February 2015.

“Convalescent Soldiers Marching by the U.S. Capitol.” Harper’s Weekly, 6, no. 307 (November 15, 1862), 721. 

Ingersoll, W.H. “Christ-Ideals in American Art.” American Magazine VII, no. 2 (December 1887): 131-54, especially 153-54.

Inventory of the Johannes Adam Simon Oertel Papers, Collection Number: 04592. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  http://www2.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/o/Oertel, Johannes_Adam_Simon.html.  Accessed 2 February 2015.

Jarratt, Elizabeth McConnell. St James’ Episcopal Church, An Historical Scrapbook, 1849-1979.  Lenoir, NC: 1979.

J[ohannes] A[dam Simon] O[ertel], “A Benediction from the South.” The Studio 1, no. 8 (February 24, 1883): 61-2, was a statement of his opposition to “art for art’s sake” as a diminution of the power of fine art to influence human culture.

New York Times, 21 August 1865, exhibition notice.

Oertel, J.F. A Vision Realized: A Life Story of Rev. J.A. Oertel, D.D., Artist, Priest, Missionary.  Boston, MA: Christopher Publishing House, 1928.

Powell, William S. “Johannes Adam Simon Oertel.” Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Volume 4, L-O.

Saint James Episcopal Church, Lenoir, NC. Oertel Art Collection.  North Carolina Digital Collections.  

http://cdm16062.contentdm.udc.org/calm/ref/collection/p16062coll8/19.  Accessed 2 February 2015. 

Also:  http://inst.ncecho.ncdr.gov/thumbnail.aspx?/search term=00829. Accessed 2 February 2015.

Smithsonian Institution Research Information System, List of sixty five Johannes A.S. Oertel paintings.”  http://siris-artinventories.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?session=G42299M. Accessed 2 February 2015.

Vroom, Stephen Michael.  The Romantic Vision of Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, 1823-1909, September 25 ---December 10, 1995.  Sewanee, TN: University Gallery of the University of the South, 1995.

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This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

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