CHnitiet^itp of iSortI) Carolina
Collection of jRottfi Catoliniana
3o|)n feptunt l^ill
of t|)e Claeis of 18S9
le.y\<^'^r,H.C .cJUaos Vin.X
UNIVERSITY OF N.C. AT CHAPEL HILL
FOR USE ONLY IN
THE NORTH CAROLINA COLLECTION
THIS TITLE HAS BEEN MICROFILMED
A VISION REALIZED
PORTRAIT OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D.
A VISION REALIZED
A LIFE STORY OF
REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D.
ARTIST, PRIEST, MISSIONARY
J. R OERTEL
THE YOUNG CHURCHMAN COMPANY
THE YOUNG CHURCHMAN CO.
"Unskilful he to fawn, or seek for power.
By doctrines fashioned to the varying hour ;
Far other aims his heart had learned to prize
More bent to raise the wretched than to rise."
— Oliver Goldsmith's "Deserted Village*
This book, now offered to the world to perpetuate the memory
of J. A. Oertel, has been compiled rather than written.
Much has been taken from his own writings, much from those
of his wife. Without the latter the record would have been
incomplete as his own life would have been without her.
His most ardent admirer, yet his most severe critic, the
mother of his children and the mistress of his home, she was at
the same time his guide in business affairs.
His comfort and stay in all the many trials and disappoint-
ments that beset his career; she cheered him in adversity and
with dauntless courage and an implicit faith in his genius sus-
tained and inspired him until at last the great purpose of his
life was realized.
To her, OUE MOTHER, this record is reverently dedicated.
PORTRAIT OF MRS. JULIA ADELAIDE OERTEL
From a drawing by J. A. O., 1854
[Extract from letter dated February 29, 1896.]
J. A. Oertel to his wife.
"At this moment comes to me what a pile of material the
fellow will have who, after we are gone, undertakes the thankless
labor of trying to rescue our names from oblivion by compiling
a biography, no inconsiderable part of which is noted in my
"I pity him beforehand, i. e., if so foolish a fellow could be
born. Let's burn them all and prevent so inconsiderate an under-
The letters were not burned, and the "foolish fellow" (or
fellows) were born, and in a spirit of duty to their great father
have undertaken to give to the world the following record of his
life and works. This is given as a simple story of his life, much
of it autobiographic, his aim and purpose in art, his struggles to
maintain the standard set and to reach the goal he had in view
and his ultimate success.
J. F. Oertel
T. E. Oertel, M.D.
Chapter I ^
Chapter II ^
Chapter III 32
Chapter IV 39
Chapter V 5^
Chapter VI 61
Chapter VII 75
Chapter VIII 81
Chapter IX 108
Chapter X 120
Chapter XI 1^8
Chapter XII 155
Chapter XIII 165
Chapter XIV 169
Chapter XV ^ 190
Chapter XVI 205
Chapter XVII 210
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
PoRTKAiT OF Rev. J. A. Oertel, D.D. . . . Frojitispiece
Portrait of Mrs. Julia Adelaide Oertel . . . vi-vii
Battle at the Pass of Thermopylae .... 2-3
The Descent into Hell 8-9
The Dispensations of Promise and the Law . . 14-15
The Redeemer 24-25
The Dispensation of the Holy Spirit . . . 26-27
The Consummation of Redemption .... 28-29
Steel Engravings made for Bank Notes . . . 34-35
Cattle at Rest 46-47
The Rock of Ages 66-67
A Rough Sea 112-113
The Walk to Gethsemane 142-143
Figure of Christ 154-155
Reredos and Altar 160-161
"The Sands of Dee" 162-163
Ezekiel's Vision 162-163
Successors to Royalty 170-171
In the Studio, Bel Air, Md 174-175
Evening Meditation 174-175
The Death of Saul 212-213
Credence Table 218-219
Reredos in the Cathedral, Quincy, III. . . . 222-223
"The imagination of Fra Bartolommeo glowed with religious
and poetical exaltation, with the love of God, and enthusiasm for
art." — Poetry of Christian Art, Page 280.
"In our day it (art) is nothing but an accessory, a pleasing
talent, whereas of old, and in the Middle x\ges it was a pillar of
society, its conscience and the expression of its religious senti-
ment." — Jean Francois Millet.
In the art of to-day, reaching so far as it does
toward perfection in the glorious possibilities of
technique and outward expression, the inner life,
the soul of the work, is too often forgotten, or
rather not thought of or looked for at all.
If the figure be arrayed in gorgeous raiment, if
the draperies be of exquisite shadings and richest
harmonies of color, what it may say to the beholder
is of small moment ; lovely without, the critical eye
of the period is satisfied, and cares not for the spirit
beneath the folds, nor asks for anything more from
the canvas than the sentimental and sensuous
delight this harmonious perfection affords.
The subject, as can be seen by reference to the
walls of our exhibition galleries, is apt to be quite
inferior to the manner of its execution, and any
subject painted in accordance with the ruling taste
of the day is accepted, no matter how trivial, or in
some cases even repulsive, as in the gladiatorial
pictures, or scenes from vulgar life.
xiv A VISION REALIZED
Those olden times when art was ^^the pillar
of society, its conscience, and its religious
enthusiasm'' have passed, and while it remains
intellectual and sensuous, it has lost the grandeur
of being the exponent of a people's faith, and the
power of lifting the thoughts to higher and better
things, of being a purifier, an element of religious
education and advancement, and a spiritual force
to draw man nearer to his God.
It is not pertinent to the subject to inquire how
this state of things is but the natural outgrowth of
the onward rush of the present century, as is
claimed ; the fact is patent, but it may be of value
to stop and consider what is lost by the change, and
to ask whether the result to the world of all this
acute study of artistic excellencies is worth the
effort it costs, when not joined to an art that has a
higher and holier motive. This should not be
understood to underrate in any way the value of a
perfect technique. A worthy subject is worthy of a
perfect expression, and if this perfection of execu-
tion might only be thrown around the noblest
subjects it would give life to an art worthy of the
advanced times in which we live.
That art ''of old and in the middle ages"
enchains to this day not only the intellectual facul-
ties but the affections are drawn out to it, and it
finds a responsive echo in the holiest recesses of the
Christian soul and life.
Why should modern art drift away, feeding the
mind and eyes only and leaving the soul to starve ?
Why should not this outward excellence be
studied with careful motive to clothe with winning
beauty a holy and helpful thought, as the wonderful
shrines are covered with silver and gold and en-
riched with precious gems, not for their own sakes
but for the value of the sacred relic lying within'?
In so far as the wonderful loveliness of the
Creator's works is shown and the soul dwelling in
flower or landscape revealed, or when the great
heart of humanity is touched by an artistic render-
ing of the toils, and joys, and woes, and the rude
poetry of the life of the common people, as by
Millet, a high plain has been reached and a most
worthy object attained, but there are still grander
ideas connected with man's spiritual development,
with his downfall, his redemption, his hopes of
immortality which ought to be first as themes for
the artist's mind and hand and rank high above all
others, as the sun shining in his strength is beyond
all lesser lights in glory.
If art, as has been said, must be purely emo-
tional and its province be altogether exclusive of
ideas and the fewer the ideas contained therein the
finer the art, there is surely nothing in it to satisfy
the craving of an immortal soul; and froth and
foam and husks only must leave unappeased the
hunger which craves the wine of truth and the fine
wheat that nourishes to eternal life.
The art of the great Past was always ^^the
expression of the religious sentiment of the people"
from whom it had birth ; pagan as well as the true
faith crystallized itself in artistic forms, and it has
remained for this later age, so full of monstrosities
in religion and philosophies, to divorce art from the
people's faith and make it purely subservient to
xvi A VISION REALIZED
the world and the uses of this mortal life, polluting
it by dragging do^^^l to earth what should be a pure
spiritual guide leading up to Heaven.
Alas that the time has gone by when the artist
believed himself a seer, an interpreter of God's
He no more feels ennobled by the knowledge
that he ministers at the altar of his God, and that
he ^^ paints for eternity'' ; his pictures now stand on
a level with the embroideries on a portiere, if
indeed they have not a tendency to lower the mind
and soul by their influence.
There are some signs of an awakening in the
increase of art decoration in the churches, though
in many of them the same rule prevails as in the
picture world; they are made glorious in har-
monious chords of color but in senseless and
unmeaning forms, appealing only to the same
faculties of sensuous emotion and with no motive
to make them worthy of the place they hold. In a
few instances, however, an art which teaches finds
a place, and enrichments, memorial or otherwise,
are introduced which will stand silent preachers
for many generations.
There are other indications too, now and then,
which show that lovers of aesthetics are becoming
anxious for an art that is not all mere color and
subtlety of handling and that the will of the relig-
ious public is a strong and controlling force.
The time for Christian art of the highest kind
may be approaching, and the rendering of truly
noble thoughts find appreciation and encourage-
ment in this country.
With this idea is brought before the reader an
old name that is almost crowded out of the artistic
list by the multitude of new names that have risen
on the waves of popular favor as they sailed with
the prevailing winds of fashion and technical
ability, a name linked in the minds of those who
remember it at all with so many different styles of
work they scarcely know where to place it, and
which would be immortal as the painter of ^^The
Rock of Ages" if the name of the artist was known
—as, strangely enough, it is not— wherever the
reproduction of this most popular of modern works
In considering the material in hand from which
to compile an account of the life and works of the
Rev. Johannes A. S. Oertel, D.D., one leading idea
is impressed upon the mind— that here was a man
who battled for a principle through a life of vicissi-
tudes and changes and of many failures and disap-
pointments, but who always kept his eye fixed on
the goal he was striving to win and in whose artistic
career there was no variation of purpose notwith-
standing the stern necessities of daily life com-
pelled him to a variety of departures from the path
he would have chosen.
In a letter written in 1896 he says :
^*I have just read a sketch of Lord Leighton's
life, and my mind drew the contrast of such a career
and mine from beginning to the end ; every advan-
tage given of station, money, teachers, travel,
training, and abundance of facilities, and with
marked success all along— and my experience; in
poverty, an object of charity for years; confined
xviii A VISION REALIZED
within narrow limits of travel, of seeing, of helps
for study; with only such training as persistent
half -blind effort supplied; hampered by want of
facilities ; cramped by Care ; forced aside by multi-
plicity of pursuits ; discouraged to intimidation by
failure and cold public sentiment, my faculties split
up by efforts at making a living in a variety of
directions, from the start as a boy of 14 to this date,
seven years older than Leighton, one continuous,
long almost uninterrupted conflict.
^^I do not overdraw. To this very day I have to
create my own tools, as it were. In this line I have
done nearly everything but manufacture my o^vn
canvas, paints, and brushes ; for as to models, the
glass has served me much more frequently than
other people's figures.
^^ Reading of such a different life, of course,
brings some reflection. Of course, also, I ap-
preciate the value of such training for inde-
pendence, self-reliance, self-help and increase of
^^That I have not a greater amount of all these I
almost regard as a blame.
*^In all probability the incessant cold water of
neglect over me has kept down more vigorous work
and squeezed me into a shrinking attitude.
^^But let it pass. It matters not what man's
position is in the mouths of men. Human estimate
is at best a fickle and very deceitful thing. To the
struggling man it is of inestimable comfort to have
the knowledge of the existence of bookkeeping by
double entry— one for this world, another for the
next ; a view of that, and a striving for lofty aims.
has alone supplied me energy when outward fail-
ures would have crushed every effort.
'^ 'Fly your fancy into the clouds, and from
this imaginary height take a view of mortals here
below' said even pagan Marcus Aurelius! and why
should not I, a Christian, with more exalted knowl-
These very vicissitudes, much as they are to be
deplored, show him to have been possessed of a
versatility of talent most remarkable though they
divided his faculties, frittered his strength, and
made his life a battle for existence rather than
an opportunity for the development of the great
natural and spiritual gifts with which he was
His principle was that art worthy to be made
the life work of a man with an immortal soul and
God-given intellectual powers should be teaching
art and not a mere manufacture of the beautiful,
his desire and aim to lay all he could do at the feet
of his Divine Lord and through his art to preach
Christ and tell the story of salvation to the world.
In the following chronicle it will be necessary
to speak much of the man and the circumstances
surrounding him at various times because his art
life was shaped by those circumstances as the
course of the stream is turned by the configuration
of the country through which it flows and its waters
either placid or lashed to fury by the character of
the bed beneath it, whether it be sandy and smooth
or full of jagged rocks and bowlders.
But in speaking of these circumstances and
conditions the aim will be to mention only such as
XX A VISION REALIZED
had direct bearing and influence on his artistic
career and as such be of interest to the world at
Johannes Adam Simon Oertel was born in
Flirth, near Nuremberg, Bavaria, on November 3,
From his infancy the ruling talent of his life
was apparent; inventiveness showing itself at a
very early age. Not only did his baby hands draw,
but his baby brain invented forms and com^DOsed
them in groups; and in the pencil he found the
chief amusement of his early youth. Some small
drawings, both figure and animal, bear the words
**from my 6th year." Although of course he was
often compelled to copy, it was exceedingly dis-
tasteful and in his later 3^ears became positively
repulsive to him, his mind being so filled with
images of his own that it could not endure the task
of reproducing the work and thoughts of others.
When about 9 years of age he executed two elab-
orate pieces of caligraphy which are still in exist-
ence in a fair state of preservation, ''The Lord's
Prayer" and ''The Ten Commandments." They
are 3 feet by 2 in size and contain much ornamenta-
tion and even figure drawing. They were done in
india ink and with quill pens made by himself from
crow quills gathered in the woods. He was a small
and delicate child and could only execute them by
lying flat upon the table while he worked.
2 A VISION REALIZED
His parents always testified to the earnest per-
severance with which he pursued this work when
out of school, even late into the night.
He seems, notwithstanding the prominence of
his artistic tastes, not to have intended to follow
them, as in his thirteenth year he went to study
with the Rev. Mr. Loehe, an eminent clerg}Tiian,
with a view to giving himself to the work of foreign
While he studied he traced one fancy after
another upon the broad margins of his class books,
and the good and wise pastor soon saw that his
pupil had mistaken his vocation, and that if he had
a message to declare to the world it ought to be
by form rather than words. He advised the boy
to change his plans and become a student of art.
After a year with Mr. Loehe he acted upon this
judicial advice and became the pupil of Mr. J. M.
Ensing Miiller, a noted artist and engraver of
Nuremberg, taking up the study of art in general
and steel engraving in particular.
This excellent teacher was himself a man of
superior and poetic mind, of large inventiveness
and refined ideality, and he guided the young and
ardent mind of his gifted pupil most judiciously,
only directing it, and leaving it free to work out
its own individuality.
This connection continued, with some inter-
ruptions and the change from the relation of pupil
to that of friend, until his twenty-fifth year.
The tedious and laborious art of steel engrav-
ing was distasteful to a mind so full of active
thought, but he worked on unflinchingly.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 3
In 1838 and 1839 he was, with his master, in
Munich. Surrounded by the works of Cornelius
and Kaulbach, whose style and influence then con-
trolled the Munich school, the boy's mind was filled
with a new and powerful impulse; especially the
works of the latter artist seemed to give him wings,
and he commenced more extended efforts in com-
position than he had before attempted. He was at
that time an enthusiastic student of Grecian his-
tory, from which several bold designs dating from
his eighteenth year are still preserved. These were
executed in cartoon and in his leisure hours, but
he could not lay aside the steel plates from which
he derived his support. One of the cartoons, ^^The
Battle of the Granicus," embodying an incident in
the life of Alexander the Great, is 8 by 12 feet. It
is vigorous in treatment and skilful in composi-
tion. Though damaged by age and by frequent
removals, this hung on the walls of his various
studios until his death. It was also done in color
about the same time, 13 by 20 inches.
Another of these compositions, ^^The Battle at
the Pass of Thermopylae, " is in monochrome, 2 feet
6 inches by 3 feet. It represents the few remaining
Spartans struggling against the opposing hosts;
a bold composition and displaying a wonderful
knowledge of the human form.
All of his early works, as well as his writing-
some of which almost required the use of a mag-
nifying glass to read— showed his training as a steel
engraver in the fine detail and exactness with which
they were executed.
His father, Thomas Frederick, was an expert
4 A VISION REALIZED
metal worker and, as was the custom at that time,
had his shop in his house, where he worked with
his helpers and apprentices.
Johannes from him inherited marked mechan-
ical ability and in the shop learned to do all kinds
of metal work, a knowledge that was very useful
to him in after years when obliged to '^create his
owTi tools/' While thus training his mental facul-
ties the physical were not neglected.
As he grew up he gained in strength and spent
considerable time in training his body at the gym-
nasium, excelling in feats of strength and agility,
and was classed as one of the best athletes in Ba-
varia. He was also an expert in fencing, both with
the foils and with broadsword. These gymnastic
exercises he continued until late in life and in his
studio could always be seen dumb-bells, some of
50 pounds in weight, which he handled as if they
were toys, his foils, and huge ^'Indian clubs."
With these the iron muscles were kept in perfect
condition to perform the severe labor he imposed
on himself and continued unremittingly to the last.
He was very fond of running and leaping and
had a good record in both. One of his perform-
ances in this line was to go ^4eap-frog'' over seven
men standing in a row face to back with bent heads
He also studied music and took up as his instru-
ment the flute, which he played well; though he
often expressed regret that he had not selected the
violin or 'cello, complaining that the flute was too
limited in its capacities and admitted of so little
display of feeling. He played the organ ; but only
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 5
for his ^^ Chorals," of which he was very fond,
hymns, or in improvising, was it used, though for
some years he had one in his studio. He planned
some 20 years before his death to have a pipe organ
in his studio and began to make it, constructing
several stops of wooden pipes, but this, being for
himself, was never finished.
In 1848, in company with his master and some
other friends both artistic and musical, he bade
farewell to his native land and with a heart full of
hopes and undefined anticipations he set out for
America, coming over in a sailing vessel which
required 10 weeks to make the trip. During the
voyage he quite astonished the sailors by his ability
to go aloft— anywhere they could— and, as the
quarters below were none of the best, he spent most
of his days on deck or in the *Hop" and at night
slept on deck with the anchor chain for a pillow.
Nought awaited him here but disappointment.
He found at that time little knowledge of art, no
defined public taste, and a people who seemed to
care nothing for ideals. The whole state of society
was indeed foreign to him. He had been living for
many years an idyllic sort of life in a quaint Ger-
man village, his master and the group of pupils
making his world, the gymnasium, the woods
ramble, and the evening readings at the master's
house supplying the recreation from study and
labor; and when thrown loose on the rushing tide
of American life his sensitive nature was shocked
and hurt at every turn and he found himself in
entirely unexpected surroundings and was as a
child in his ability to meet them.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 7
Another painful fact, which had to dawn upon
him by degrees, was that he was no painter. Edu-
cated as a steel engraver, he had all materials with
the point in full subjugation— pen, pencil, crayon,
graver, but not the brush. This was a difficulty
with which he had a life struggle and to which some
of his failures are doubtless attributable, and was
overcome only by persistent and continued effort.
He was advised during his first months in this
country to turn his attention to teaching, and he
obtained for a time a situation in a young ladies'
seminary in Newark, N. J., although his knowledge
of the language was very inadequate to the per-
formance of his task.
He had studied English before leaving Ger-
many, and knew much as learned from books, but
found he had nothing practical at his command
when he landed on these shores. That difficulty
was soon mastered, for with constant study and
an immediate putting in practice what he learned
the lack of an avenue of expression was not a draw-
back for any great length of time.
He eventually obtained a command of English
equaled by few even of those born and educated
in this country and exceeded by none entirely self
He was told that it would be useless to make
Christian pictures, that they would find no sym-
pathy or sale; so, as the next best thing, he
attempted as his first important painting in Amer-
ica a theme from ^^ Paradise Lost,'' thinking that
the English-speaking people must have sjnupathy
with their own classics. It was called ' ' The Lament
8 A VISION REALIZED
of the Fallen Spirits'' and was founded on the fol-
lowing lines :
"Others more mild.
Retreated to a silent valley, sing
With notes angelical to many a harp
Their own heroic deeds and hapless fall
By doom of battle ; and complain that fate
Free virtue should enthrall to force or chance
Their song was partial, but the harmony —
What could it be less when spirits immortal sing ?
Suspended Hell and took with ravishment
The thronging audience."
It was a weird, original composition, full of
thought and careful work, but it was poor and
hard as a painting and as a whole a failure. It
was exhibited at the American Art Union in the
early months of 1850.
He made other compositions from this poem,
*^The Descent of the Fallen Spirits into Hell," a
painting, and ''Satan Falling from Heaven," a
Within a year after his arrival in America his
parents and two brothers, Frederick and George,
followed and all located in Newark, N. J.
In 1851 he married Julia Adelaide Torrey,
daughter of Asa and Mary Sandford Torrey, of
Newark, the one woman, it would seem, in all the
world best fitted to go with him through the years
of struggle which followed ; guiding, cheering, en-
couraging, and inspiring, as undaunted in the face
of adversity and trial as himself, with a depth of
feeling and true appreciation of art as great as
his own and, though almost entirely self-educated,
with talents both artistic and literary second only
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 9
to his. The part she had in his work and her
influence on all that he did can not be over esti-
mated, and truly it may be said that this chronicle
of his life must be hers as well.
Four children were born to them, Mary Magda-
lena, November 10, 1852 ; John Frederick, Novem-
ber 3 (his father's birthday), 1856; Samuel Philip,
November 28, 1859 (died Dec. 11, 1859), and Theo-
dore Eugene, April 20, 1864.
After his marriage he moved to Madison, N. J.,
the home of his wife's parents, built a studio, and
commenced anew to study in Christian Art to
which his life w^as pledged.
A composition, a finished work in pencil, ^^The
Death of Saul" (1 Sam. 31 : 3-6), made at this time
shows the artist working with the conventional
ideas unbibed in the' study of Kaulbach and the
Munich school; still it is full of fine grouping and
harmonious lines. The bodies of the three sons of
Saul lying together are most skilfully rendered,
and every line artistically placed. The fomi of
the giant Saul, pierced by the sword, stretches
through the middle of the picture, at his feet lies
the coi^pse of his armor bearer, in the background
the battle still rages around the falling standard
of Israel, and in the sky appears the shade or spirit
of Samuel testifying to the truth of the prophecies
he had uttered in regard to the fate of Saul and
which were now fulfilled. (1 Sam. 28 : 19.)
No regular record of works produced was kept
previous to 1854, and what became of this drawing
is not known, but in later years the same subject
was done in color.
10 A VISION REALIZED
During the winter of 1851-52 he made a series
of designs illustrating the redemption of mankind,
which he set before him as his life work. On the
ultimate production of these his veiy soul was
centered. From this date until the completion of
the works— nearly 50 years— eveiy effort was put
forth to place himself in position to enable him
to undertake them. Every move was made with
this possible end in view. As the years rolled on
and plan succeeded plan only to end in failure it
seemed that it would not be permitted, and there
were those who urged him to abandon art entirely
and make his living in some other way.
Through it all he never flinched or quailed,
always was his gaze upward and onw^ard. When
failure of a plan came upon him he was still
undaimted; and, instead of having the effect of
diminishing his enthusiasm or causing him to
waver in his purpose, it only spurred him on to
renewed efforts, and as these designs were taken
as his life work so the story of his life is the story
of these works— a story of unremitting effort to
attain the end in view, a devious path leading over
bowldered hills, over many a sandy waste and
treacherous bog, a path beset by many dangers and
untold difficulties, where the foot must not slip,
the eye grow dim, nor courage fail. And yet this
path he trod, his step finn, his eye bright and clear,
his courage unfaltering, and with a sublime faith
that the Almighty God in whom he believed and
trusted would protect and guide him and conduct
him to the haven where he would be.
And so he went on, giving his life and work to
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 1 1
the great principle of bettering the conditions of
humanity, helping and cheering those whom he
met by the way, relieving the distressed wherever
found, soothing the unhappy, giving from his
slender purse to those in need, pointing the way
to Heaven by word, deed, and work, and giving
the credit and glory all to his Divine Lord and
Master whom he served.
He looked upon these designs as inspirations
and his faith was firm that they were God-given
and that the time would come when he would
His plan was that of an enthusiast to be sure,
and the practical man may smile at it ; but it was
earnest and unselfish at least. It was this: He
knew there was no hope of sale for pictures of this
character and collossal size, so he determined that
he would make them by his own exertions, and then
he believed that if they were made successfully
some one could be found to put up a proper build-
ing to receive them and that he would make them a
gift as a nucleus for a free gallery, hoping thereby
to give an impetus to Christian art in this country.
These compositions are entitled :
1. ^^The Dispensations of Promise and the
2. ^^ The Redeemer."
3. ^^The Era of the Holy Spirit."
4. ^^The Consummation of Redemption."
In the case of the first one, so complicated and
full of figures and meaning, he had been reading
the Old Testament for some time seeking a subject
12 A VISION REALIZED
comprising 10 or 12 figures, but finding nothing to
suit him, until, sitting and thinking of what he had
read, a voice seemed to say audibly to him, ''Why
not make the whole Old Testament in one picture T'
—and inmiediately this composition rose up before
him in its entirety.
After he had secured it on paper in charcoal
scrawls he read for days to obtain his references
and authorities but found no reason to change it
in the slightest particular.
The second of the series, ''The Eedeemer," in
the same remarkable manner stood upon the bare
white wall of the Methodist church during the ser-
mon, at which place the small band of Episcopa-
lians in Madison at that time held their services ; so
that on coming home he was able to note it down
in all its wonderful completeness of logical thought.
On returning from service that day he said to his
wife, "If I can put on paper what I have seen on
the wall over the preacher's head just now I shall
have one of the greatest compositions ever made for
its terseness, and containing so much in a few
The other two followed in a similar way. His
mode of thinking seemed ever to be a bringing out
of the spiritual and hidden truths rather than a
rendering of the outside of things, as is partic-
ularly noticeable in this series— and in all his better
The following description of the intention of
the great series is from his own pen :
"These compositions are designed to delineate
the outlines of that great scheme of Redemption,
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 1 3
which God has been carrying on since the Fall, for
the recovery of ruined man.
''And as in that plan Christ is the central object,
toward which all things point and concentrate,
and in which at last all things are completed and
consmnmated, so also in these pictures it is designed
that all shall point to Christ.
''Christ through the sin of man became needed
and, through the mercy of God, promised and
typified in the whole ceremonial law and worship:
then revealed, fulfilling the promise and the type,
obtaining for man the conquest over sin, Satan, and
death ; then ascended to His mediatorial throne the
possessor of all power in Heaven and upon earth,
sending forth His Word and His Spirit to enlighten
the nations ; then glorified in the final and complete
separation of the evil and the good, in the destruc-
tion of the evil, and the gathering together and
perfecting of His redeemed in His heavenly and
"Each picture is distinct in itself' and yet each
one supplements all the others.
"They are designed to illustrate and make con-
spicuous the unity of all God's dealings with man;
the grand harmony of His plan of redemption in its
peculiar development, from the suggestive outlines
drawn in the first promise made after the Fall
(Genesis 3:15) until the triumphant consumma-
tion in eternal glory; pointing, from Genesis to
Eevelation, continually and only to Christ, the
Lord Jehovah and Saviour of man."
14 A VISION REALIZED
DESCRIPTION OF THE SERIES.
1. The Dispensations of Promise and the Law.
In this composition there are three points
prominent, namely, Sin, Prophecy, and Typical
They are devoloped from a center, and carried
in streams of figures and groups to the foreground,
or near it.
The center is Moses, from whom Prophecy
stretches to the left; Typical Sacrifice, in a semi-
circle to the right; while Sin and its punishment
occupies the middle from the altar to the imme-
Besides there is an upper part to the picture, in
the clouds, dividing the time of simple promise
from the time of the law.
The Shekinah of God's Glory,' surrounded by
angelic heads, is the true center and the light of
the picture. Jehovah's presence was the life and
the light of the Old Dispensation.
The fall of man in Eden, and the sentence of
sin drew from the mercy of God the promise of a
Saviour, which promise expanded subsequently
into prophecy and found visible expression in the
divinely appointed sacrifices of the Mosaic dis-
pensation. Under these three heads the whole Old
Testament ecclesiastically is comprised.
The old dispensation was a preparation for the
new, and foreshadowed it. In this manner, also,
the composition is treated. It embraces the 4,000
^Ex. 13: 21; 14: 19-20, 24; 40: 34-38. Numb. 9: 15-23; 10: 34; 14:
14. Deut. 1: 33. Ps. 78: 14; 99: 7; 105: 39. Is. 4:5, 6.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 1 5
years before Christ as a time of prophecy, of types,
and of figures. It makes use of the cardinal facts
of the ecclesiastical history of that period, so far
as they relate to the coming of the Deliverer and
the great sacrifice for sin to be accomplished by
Him. The justice and the mercy of God are in it
The angels on either side of the Shekinah first
show these. Upon the side of the law, the flaming
sword does its full work upon the daring sinners ' ;
but where the smoke of sacrifice ascends acceptably
to the Lord, though the law is still in force, the
sword lowered signifies that God is just and yet
can be ''the justifier of him that believeth."
But while punishment overtakes the transgres-
sors of God's holy law, salvation is also provided
to them who in faith will avail themselves of the
means of God's own appointing ; and whereas death
entered into the world by reason of sin, promise'
extended to fallen man even while he was judged,
opened to his faith a vision of the Redeemer. Of
this Adam and Eve, on the left of the Shekinah,
remind us, and the sacred line behind these, with
Abel, the first eminent type of Christ's sacrifice,
leading. Next to these is Enoch,* in his translation
without seeing death, the type and pledge of
Christ's triumph over death and the grave. Beside
him sits Noah ' and his three sons, saved by faith
from the over^vhelming flood, typifying the salva-
tion of the redeemed in Christ, ^Hhe like figure
2 Cor. 10: 10. 2 Sam. 24: 16. 1 ^ Gen. 3: 15.
Chron. 21: 16. 2 Kings 19: 35. Acts * Gen. 5: 21-23. Heb. 11:5.
12:23. »Gen. 7:7, 13: 8:18. Heb. 11:7.
16 A VISION REALIZED
whereunto, even baptism' doth also now save us,
by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. ' '
On the right are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and his sons, patriarchs of the 12 tribes, Joseph,
the feeder of his brethren, and Benjamin, and
Judah, the progenitor of our Lord, being promi-
nent. With Abraham was the covenant' estab-
lished; Avith him the visible church began. The
^'Father of the Faithful"' invokes the blessing of
God [El Shaddai] upon his children.
These, represented in the clouds, belong to the
Dispensation of Promise.
The Dispensation of the Law occupies the lower
and larger space. Moses, the giver of the law,
stands prominent upon the steps of the temple.
The shadowy promise now expands into prophecy,
which develops as centuries advance, until it spoke
in clear, explicit language of the ^^Man of Sor-
rows" treading the winevat alone, bearing our
iniquity and transgression.' That which in the
prophetic line is foretold is t}T3ified by the sac-
rifices to the right of Moses, and thus these two
sides correspond in prophetic expression as also
they form a continuous stream of figures.
Prophet himself," Moses gave his name to the
dispensation which began with him. Though the
great deliverer of Israel from Eg}^pt, he could not
bring them within the borders of the promised
land. This was accomplished by the typical Jesus,
(Joshua,) his successor," the warrior before whom
• 1 Peter 3: 20-21. « Isaiah 53.
'Gen. 15: 1-18; 17: 1-14. ^^ Deut. 18: 15, 18, 19.
•John 8: 39. Heb. 11 : 8, 9, 10. "Deut. 31:23. Josh. 1 : 2-9.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 1 7
fell the enemies of the chosen people, and who
divided to them their inheritance. Next him, the
head only visible, is Samson, type of the strong
deliverer, even in his death vanquishing;" then
Samuel,'' prophet and judge; the line of judges,
Baruch, Deborah, Jeptha, being visible; then
David, the sweet Psalmist and poet king of Israel,
progenitor of the Messiah ; " then Solomon, the wise
and opulent, reigning in peace and prosperity;
type of the King of Peace (Note A), whose blessed
dominion should extend to the ends of the earth,
to endure forever and ever. Somewhat isolated, as
the mighty, 'zealous prophet was in the period of
Jewish history to which he belongs, stands Elijah,"
like Enoch of the preceding generation (directly
above him) , a type and pledge of the conquest yet
to be given over death, of life and immortality to
be brought to light. Over his shoulder looks
Elisha," laying hold upon the mantle of Elijah, by
importunate faith obtaining a double portion of
his prophetic spirit.
Beneath and more in the foreground are the
prophets of a later period. On the right sits
Micah," pointing to David, whose birthplace should
also be that of the coming Saviour; next to him,
seated upon a fragment of ruin, Jeremiah " is
bewailing the sin and captivity of his people, and
the widespread desolation of Zion. Inmiediately
above him, Isaiah," the evangelical prophet, is fore-
telling, in lofty visions, and sublime, rapturous
"Judges 16: 30. "2 Kings 2: 13; 2: 9-10.
" 1 Samuel 2 : 35. " Micah 5:1.
"^* Isaiah 11: 1. "Lam. 1: 1-3.
"2 Kings 2: 11. "Isaiah 53; 60: 6; 52: 13-15.
18 A VISION REALIZED
strains, with historic minuteness and fidelity, the
atoning death of the Messiah, and the glory which
should follow; a prophecy which could be recon-
ciled and explained only in its fulfillment. Then
Daniel, proclaiming the exact period of the Mes-
siah's coming,'" his death and the subsequent en-
largement of His Kingdom, ^^till the kingdom and
dominion and greatness of the kingdom under the
whole Heaven, shall be given to the Saints of the
Most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting king-
dom, and all dominions shall serve and obey
Him."'' Next to him is Ezekiel, distinguished by
his measuring-rod as he who so minutely described
the spiritual temple" to come, filled by the glory
of the Lord, and His abiding place for ever ; then
Nehemiah and Ezra, intent upon their plans for
the rebuilding of Jerusalem, in their looking away
to the future, seeming to catch with the prophets a
glimpse of the glory which should cover the second
temple, through the coming of the Holy One." In
the background are seen the prophets of lesser
To the right of Moses is depicted the ceremonial
worship of the church, a worship chiefly embodied
in sacrifice, which, like prophecy, pointed onward
to the future, being the '^shadow of things to come''
of the Divine Sacrifice yet to be accomplished.
The Holy Place of the Temple opens to view,
with its golden candlestick '' and the golden table "
containing the shewbread, being seen. The curtain
of the Holy of Holies is shrouded by a flood of
20 Daniel 9: 26-27. "Ezekiel 43: 7. "Exodus 25: 31-40.
" Daniel 7 : 27. " Haggai 2 : 1-9. " Exodus 25 : 23-30.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 19
light from the Shekinah; but without stands
Aaron/' the high-priest, his hands upon the head
of the scape-goat, while making confession of his
own sins and the sins of the people. Thus the
Annual Sacrifice, or the great Day of Atonement,
is represented. The Daily Sacrifice," offered each
morning and evening, is shown in the smoking
altar, with the officiating priest pouring out the
victim's blood at the foot of it, the smoke rising up
as a sweet-smelling savor unto the Lord, accepted
through faith and obedience.
Offering of First Fruits.— To the right is seen
the high-priest pronouncing the blessing" of
Jehovah over the faithful, who are thronging up to
the temple with their votive offerings from the rich
store of Jehovah's bountiful blessings. The first
fruif of every thing was holy to the Lord and
His portion; the first born male child had to be
redeemed by a pair of turtle doves, offered instead.
The firstlings of the flock, the vineyard, the field,
must be given into the Lord's treasury. Thus was
prefigured the Divine First Born, whom the
Father, His greatest blessing, gave in infinite com-
pasion for the Sins of man.
Sin Offering.— Below the Altar steps, with
contrite posture and humble petition, approaches
a group of penitents.'" Absorbed and solemn
they come, each conscious of individual unworthi-
ness. Among them, the harlot, and the prince, on
a level here as alike sinners, and alike needing
"Lev. 16. "Exodus 29: 38-46. ^^Numb. 6: 23-27.
"Exodus 13; 22:29-30; 23:19; 34:26. Lev. 23:10-11. Deut. 26.
Lev. 12. ^° Lev. 4. Lev. 5.
20 A VISION REALIZED
remission, are seen with their prescribed sacrifices,
and the old woman and man bent and hoary with
years, form the contrast of far greater burden of
soul with the child, carrying for them their sacrifice
of turtle doves.
Thank-offering.— Prominently conspicuous in
the right foreground is a rich family group, with
festive array of flowers, and palm and olive
branches, rejoicingly entering the courts of the
Lord with their many thank-offerings'' This
group illustrates the joyful, sanctifying influences
of true religion, even under the dimmer light of the
Old Dispensation, and the abounding prosperity"
with which God rewarded His faithful wor-
shippers. Mark the serene aspect of the parents, the
father, the priest and the proi3het of the family,
(upon whose forehead we observe the phylactery"
with its inscribed Scripture texts,) pointing
out to his sons the deserved punishment of Sin,
according to the Law, and also speaking of the
heavenly glory and blessedness awaiting the right-
eous"; the mother with matronly grace and love
watching over her daughters. How beautifully
does the little child, shrinking away from the un-
wonted aspect of sin and its penalty, suggest to us
childhood's innocence, nurtured and developed
under the fostering influence of sanctified parental
love. The whole group reminds us of God's word
to His prophet, **Say ye to the righteous it shall be
well with him; for they shall eat of the fruit of
their own doings ; ' ' and again, ' ' From the uttermost
"Lev. 3; 7: 9-34; 2. "Exodus 13: 16. Numb. 15: 38-41.
"Lev. 26: 1-13. Deut. 28: 1-14. " Deut. 6: 6-9.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 21
parts of the earth have we heard songs, even glory
to the righteous. ' '
But in painful contrast we behold in the middle
of the composition the delineation of Sin as the
the transgression of the Law, and its dread punish-
ment. The justice of God to unrepented, and there-
fore unf orgiven. Sin, is here set forth. ^ ^ I the Lord
thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of
the fathers upon the children, unto the third and
fourth generation of them that hate me." The
signal punishment of the Law, beginning at the
very Altar, and with the sons of the high priest,
Nadab and Abihu," presumptuously offering
before the Lord in their censers unhallowed flame,
are here depicted at the moment of their destruc-
tion by the descending fire of God's vengeance. A
few incidents from Jewish history illustrate
further the reward of Sin : the murmuring Israel-
ite' stung by the jiery serpent; the stoned blas-
phemer;^' the famishing mother;''' blindness and
raving madness/' the curses so fearfully pro-
nounced by Moses against the disobedient.
Around the crumbling idol altar," built in the
very courts of the Lord's house, now defiled by
burning human bones, a fierce group of scoffers
cling and vainly seek refuge from the wrath of an
offended God. More in the foreground the dead
bodies of other idolatrous Jews" are flung across
the shattered images in which they trusted."
"Leviticus 10: 1, 2. « 1 Kings 13: 1-3. 2 Kings 23.
"Numb. 21: 1-9. 2 Chron. 34.
"Lev. 24: 10-16. "Lev. 26: 30.
"Lev. 26: 26. Deut. 28: 38-40. « Deut. 28: 26.
" Deut. 28 : 28, 29, 35.
22 A VISION REALIZED
Dagon (Note B), the fish-god of the Phil-
"Moloch (Note C), horrid king, besmeared with blood
Of human sacrifice and parents' tears;
Though, for the noise of drums and timbrels loud.
Their children's cries unheard, that passed through fire
To his grim idol ;"
and Baal (Note D), the Sun-God, and Ashtaroth,
the deity of the moon, are selected to represent the
idol worship of the Jews. A group of captives
closes the scene of deserved desolation, but not
without an intimation of hope in the promise yet
to be fulfilled, betokened by the child touching the
harp of sacred song in glad anticipation, even while
the parents despair; Aaron's iudding rod"
signifying the priesthood and dominion not yet
departed from Israel, which would yet see restora-
tion, and that the voice of weeping be again ex-
changed for ^thanksgiving and the voice of
melody ;'' and the boy holding the scroll of the Law
still unfilled as touching Him that should come to
be its perfect accomplishment.
The hope of the captives is thus joined to
prophecy** in looking beyond for the coming of that
Saviour, who had been the burden of all of God's
promises, and of the Law and the ceremony.
Thus we see foreshadowed in this composition
Christ, the Messiah, the true sacrifice for Sin, the
**Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,''
the *' Prince of Peace and Lord our Righteous-
ness," whose appearing for man's salvation forms
" Numbers 17.
"Jeremiah 25: 11. Leviticus 26: 40-45. Jeremiah 29: 11-14.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 23
the grand theme of all the sacred writings, His
Divine Person the fulcrum of man's history. The
Spirit of the Old Testament Dispensations is thus
exhibited in these three points, into which the pic-
ture naturally divides, namely :
Sin, which drew down upon offending man the
justice of a holy God ;
The Promise, or prophecy, of a Saviour, which
the mercy of God extended to man ; and
Typical Sacrifice, also a prophecy and pledge of
the coming Redeemer.
Like the Old Dispensation itself, the sentiment
of the composition breaks off unfinished. Every
thing indicates the incompleteness of the present.
As yet faith looks forward with yearning desire for
the Consolation of Israel; the blood of sheep and
goats could not take away sin; redemption could
only be accomplished by the Son, whom the Father
would send, and in Him the Promise, the Law, and
the Sacrifice, would be fulfilled.
Note A. — Solomon, or "Shelomah'" (Hebrew), is identical in mean-
ing with '^Friedrich" (Frederick), i, e., great, or rich, in peace, or a
king of peace.
Note B. — Dagon, the national God of the Philistines. He was rep-
resented with the face and hands and body of a man or woman, and the
tail of a fish. 1 Samuel 5 : 5. The fish-like form was a natural emblem
of fruitfulness. Judges 16: 21-30. 1 Samuel 5:6. 1 Chronicles 10: 10.
The Philistines dwelled on the seashore. The wars between them and the
Israelites were frequent, and these suffered terribly at their hands. The
prediction of Moses ( Deut. 28 : 25 ) , "The Lord shall cause them to be
smitten before thine enemies," found its literal fulfilment in these wars.
Note C. — Moloch, or Molech, the fireking, the tutelary deity of the
children of Ammon. Among the rites with which this God was wor-
shipped were human sacrifices, purifications, and ordeals by fire, devoting
of the firstborn, mutilation, and vows of perpetual celibacy and virginity.
Psalms 106: 37-38. Jeremiah 7: 31. 2 Chronicles 28: 3. According to
Jewish authority, "This image of Molech was made of brass, hollow
24 A VISION REALIZED
within, and was situated without Jerusalem. His face was that of a
calf, and his hands stretched forth like a man's who opens his hands to
receive something. And they kindled it with fire, and the priests took
the babe and put it into the hands of Molech, and the babe gave up the
ghost. And why was it called Tophet or Hinnom? Because they used
to make a noise with drums, (tophim,) that the father might not hear
the cry of his child and have pity on him, and return to him. Hinnom,
because the babe wailed and the noise of his wailing went up."
Note D. — Baal, the supreme male divinity of the Phoenicians and
Canaanitish nations, as Ashtaroth was their supreme female divinity.
Numb. 25: 3 sqq; Deut. 4: 3; Judges 2: 10-13; 1 Samuel 7: 4; 1 Kings
16: 31-33; 18: 19-22; 2 Kings 16: 3. Baal means master, owner, pos-
sessor. Under his image, and that of Ashtaroth, the sun and moon
were worshipped. Baal had numerous priests, 1 Kings 18: 19; and it is
a priest that in the composition embraces this idol under the shield the
young warror stretches protectingly over him against the smiting angel.
The limits and character of a composition like
this dictate the necessity of omitting all that is not
strictly essential for a lucid, logical representation
of the fundamental idea. Hence it can lay no claim
to historic minuteness, and embracing even every
person and feature which has a direct bearing upon
the main thought it endeavors to illustrate. It is
by nature suggestive ; and on the other hand must
confine itself to that which is capable of pictorial
rendering. In regard to the sacrifices, for instance,
there would be, theologically, more heads and divi-
sions than the three of first fruits, sin offering, and
thank offering, beside the annual atonement and the
daily sacrifice. There would be the Paschal Lamb,
burnt offering, trespass offering, etc., but they
could not be pictorially distinguished. So there
were signal punishments of sin, like that of Korah
and his people, and acknowledged typical persons,
like that of Jonah, which found no space in the
The spirit and design of Old Testament litera-
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 25
ture, having the character of unity and singleness
of purpose and aim, has been held in view by the
author of this picture. It teaches the universal sin-
fulness of man, the penalty of sin, and its remedy.
It was the development, by successive revelations,
of a plan for man's redemption, which has its
center in Christ, the Messiah of the Old Dispensa-
tion. As an epitome of this plan, so far as the Old
Testament history is concerned, the composition
stands; a suggestive outline of the grand general
proportions, easily filled up by the diligent Bible
student when once securely comprehended.
May it please God to use it as an incentive to
closer study of the pages of His holy Word, and as
a means of instruction in the truths which concern
every soul, leading the guilty to that Great Sacri-
fice, the ''Lamb of God which taketh away the sins
of the world."
2. ''The Redeemer"
By J. A. 0.
With so simple a composition and all the parts
and action so obvious an explanation is hardly
necessary, both the figures and their interrelation
being of common experience.
There are three factors : (1) The Saviour, divine
"High priest of our profession"; (2) Man, repre-
sentative of our race; (3) The united trio, Satan,
Sin, and Death, man's enemies.
A belt of clouds, typifying earth, divides be-
tween light and darkness, heaven and hell.
During probation, connection of man with sin
still exists, the possibility of yielding to temptation
26 A VISION REALIZED
and falling with his enemies ; the power of Christ
and man 's affections turned to Him, keep up man,
clothed now^ in purity, the rags of self -righteousness
Satan is a malicious but conquered enemy,
allowed only wiles and deceit as means of ruin, the
foot of the Crucified on his head and arm checking
Death is here the spiritual reward of sin rather
than the separation of soul and body.
The outlines of all the figures, their relation to
one another, the colors employed; the several em-
blems, the symbol of our redemption behind Christ ;
the serpent tying the infernal trio into one; the
chain on Satan's feet; ^^Death's sting"— are used
as sign language for the expression of essential
truths in the story of man's redemption by Christ
and man's position toward his Saviour and his
enemies from day to day.
3. ^*The Dispensation of the Holy Spikit"
the new testament church idea.
This composition is the keynote to the entire
series of four, including the still prophetic part of
the grand plan, ^^The Consunmiation of Redemp-
tion". That work sets forth the three main divi-
sions governing the Church idea.
First. Its origin.
Second. Its constitution and missionary char-
Third. Its works as fruits of the faith.
The divine origin of the New Testament Church
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 27
is shown in the upper part of the picture. Jesus
Christ is the Founder, His apostles the first instru-
ments for its propagation.
The divinity of the Christ is emphasized by His
position on the throne of glory and power ; by the
adoration of the angel host, Seraphim and Cheru-
bim; and by His present office as ruler of the
universe and High Priest of His people.
The apostles and evangelists go out from Him
—to Jews on the right and to Gentiles on the left—
inspired men and commissioned by His authority.
They are the founders of the Church.
This Church in its essential features is below
them. In it the Holy Spirit is the presiding and
The division of clouds under the apostles is here
taken away, for though absent Christ is yet ever
present wdth His Church. ^^Lo, I am with you
alway, even to the end of the world."
Now from the first the Church has always con-
sisted of three essential parts :
First. The Faith, contained in the inspired
Word of God, the Holy Bible, Old and New Testa-
ments, upon the altar.
Second. The lawful ministry in threefold
order, bishops, priests, and deacons.
Third. The sacraments as means of grace ; bap-
tism and its complement confirmation; and the
This church had commission to go ^4nto all the
world, and preach the Gospel to every creature";
hence representatives of all the principal races of
28 A VISION REALIZED
mankind are introduced as hearing the message of
^^ Christ Crucified."
But that faith is evidenced in works, the legiti-
mate fruits of its divine regenerating power, and so
the foreground is occupied by works of mercy and
ministrations to the poor, the orphan, sick, and the
fallen. Good works are the outgrowth of a living
faith, organized by the Church and partaken in by
all her members, official and lay.
But at all times from the first there have been in
the Church the enemies of Christ, as is evident from
the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles, and so
they could not be left out in the picture of a Dispen-
sation ^^ still militant." They turn their back on
the Christ and scorn His Cross. False, destructive
philosophy and learning, pride of intellect, blas-
phemy, wanton pleasure, the mad rush for gold and
honor, hatred and violence, all especially active in
In a composition dealing with so comprehensive
a subject, as nothing must be introduced not strictly
relevant to the main idea to its confusing and over-
loading, so nothing should be omitted that can—
within certain limits dictated by a rigid adherence
to sound logic— illustrate this idea.
In conformity to this rule, in all the upper and
central parts, colors are used for their symbolic
meaning, red for love and ardor, yellow for divin-
ity, blue for truth; and they are so distributed
as to convey to each part of it its specific
The angelic ministration is also extended from
the clouds into the Church below ; the adoration of
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 29
the Divine Spirit; the ''Prince of thy people"
(Dan) St. Michael, that does battle for the Church
on the side where ''Soldiers of Christ'' are enrolled
in Holy Baptism and their new name inscribed in
the Book of Life.
On the other side the archangel Gabriel, with
his symbol, the Incarnation Lily, where the "God
Man ' ' in the Eucharist is given to the faithful in the
consecrated Bread and Wine ; hands in blessing ex-
tended by angels over the believers, and the palm
It should be kept in mind that art is a language
capable of expressing thoughts and sentiments by
form, color, and action. By these the artist has a
wide field whither he" invites to follow him stu-
diously, taking for granted there was a sufficient
reason, in his mind at least, for choosing what
is seen on the canvass in the order, number,
and connection best suited to depict the subject
4. "The Consummation of Redemption or
THE Triumph of Christianity."
LAST OF THE SERIES— EXPLANATION BY J. A. 0.
"Known unto God are all His works from the
beginning of the world," is the declaration of St.
James (Acts 15: 18). Therefore the Plan of God
for the Eedemption of man is and must be
conceived of by us as an absolute unit. God's
revelation to man was made in three successive
dispensations, each of them during two divine
working days of a thousand years each ag fore-
30 A VISION REALIZED
shadowed in the six days of the world's creation
(Gen. 1: 31), and on the seventh day God endeth
His work which he hath made (Gen. 2:2).
In this series of paintings we have now come to
the beginning of this ^^ seventh day." During the
three dispensations of Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit there has been carried on, by successive
revelations, the work of God for the redemption of
the human race. When, in God's foreknowledge,
the time is fulfilled of the completion of this work,
this third period, the Dispensation of the Holy
Spirit, will be closed by the coming again of Christ
to judgment, when the great sabbath, the seventh
day of rest and the reign of Christ on earth, is to
In this series of paintings the conflict of Good
wdth Evil and the final triumph of Good is repre-
In the first and third, during Old and New
Testament times, that conflict respecting mankind ;
in the second the same conflict in each individual of
The fourth picture then is the victory of Good,
of Christ and His Church, over Evil. Good and
Evil are here represented and the God is trium-
phant over the Evil. During all these six thou-
sand years since Adam and the Fall, the six
working days of God for man's redemption,
Good and Evil in conflict were to human eyes
as it were mixed though radical opposites. Now at
the last they are positively separate, in two separate
The visible triumph of Good has come, Christ,
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 31
and through and with Him His Saints are vic-
The basis for this painting is the nineteenth
chapter of Eevelation, from the eleventh verse.
A large cartoon was made of ^^The Redeemer,"
mounted on rollers, and sent to the Academy of
Design in New York, but was rejected because it
had no frame. It was never exhibited but hung on
the walls of his various studios for years, until worn
by age and damaged by frequent removals it was
Part of the time during the year 1852 Mr.
Oertel was forced to leave his studio in Madison
and go to Newark in order to make money on which
Here he did all kinds of work and resorted to
various devices to secure the necessary dollars, liv-
ing meanwhile in bachelor quarters and doing his
From here, under date of May 5, he writes his
wife that the reason he does not go of tener to Madi-
son is ^^on account of my boots, for to walk (15
miles) I consider them, and to ride I consider the
money." During his stay here he painted mostly
animals and worked on portraits from daguerreo-
types for another artist.
To this kind of drudgery he was often reduced
by pressure of circumstances. He could work un-
ceasingly, but he could not bear to ask for pay.
Before leaving Newark he wrote, ^'I shall have to
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 33
make a few more calls for the purpose of collecting
all the money I have due and wish to get, and then
march off from Newark. Almost any kind of work
I could do without much murmur, only I can not
He had been brought up and was to this time a
Lutheran, but in 1852 he became a member of the
Episcopal Church and was confirmed by Bishop
Doane in October of that year.
In the spring of 1852 Mr. Oertel removed to
Brooklyn, and the next year was spent entirely in
making designs for steel engravings for use on
bank notes, drawing illustrations on wood, or
painting portraits, the only notable work of
that time being the design for the Crystal
Palace Medal, which was selected for the prize
by the judges at the competitive trial. It rep-
resented Industry led by Progress to receive a
crown at the hands of the city. Only three figures
—yet the whole story told— and again the quali-
ties of terseness and comprehensiveness combined.
He also made the model in wax for the diesinkers to
A design was made at this time bearing the title
^^ Things as they were and things as they are."
This was published as a lithograph by Goupel, of
New York, and bears the signature ^^John A.
Oertel Del. &Lith."
On the left of the picture are the ^ things as they
were," on the right ^^as they are," and these are
divided by a pillar through the center the base of
which rests on a snail shell (left) and the head of
an eagle (right), and it is surmounted by the figure
34 A VISION REALIZED
of Gutenberg, a book under his right arm and in his
right hand the compasses.
To the left of the base is seen the courier gal-
loping with his dispatch, and this is balanced on the
right by the railway with train going over a high
bridge toward a tunnel; above the courier sits a
sandal-shod monk with an hourglass before him on
the table, writing on parchment with quill pen;
behind the monk, and forming the border of the pic-
ture, are various ancient weapons, bow, spear, pike,
etc., and through the vaulted and vine-clad window
is seen the old feudal castle.
On the other hand a man clad in modern gar-
ments sits with his hand on a telegraphic instru-
ment; above his head is the gas jet and from it
hangs a watch ; behind him a newsboy is crying his
^^ extras" and in the distance appears a huge fac-
tory with towering chimney, a steamship, and
telegraph poles with wires. It is finely balanced
and beautifully drawn.
*' Pulling down the statue of King George at
Bowling Green, N. Y." was also made and pub-
lished in a large steel engraving.
In August, 1853, he began engraving for the
''National Magazine" and ''Presbyterian Board of
Publication," and early the next year exhibited
at the National Academy of Design the following
designs in pencil :
"The Death of Saul."
' ' Angel of Prayer. ' '
"Behold, I Stand at the Door and Knock."
In 1854 he again returned to his studio in Madi-
son, N. J., where he remained about a year. Some
STEEL ENGRAVINGS MADE FOR BANK NOTES
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 35
of the time was lost engraving on steel for the
American Bank Note Company, but he did more
painting than in the preceding years. ''The Cap-
tive SouP' dates from this time. This was painted
to commission of Dr. S. J. Guy, of Brooklyn, N. Y.
It was a life-size female figure, one hand chained to
a rock on which she knelt, the other raised high
above her head, while the upturned face was full of
indefinable longing as she gazed up into the blue
sky. All was light above, all dark beneath. The
lower part of the figure stood in dark brown ragged
drapery which was apparently slipping down from
the form ; a white robe showed above it ; leaving the
upper part of the figure nude as if it were stretch-
ing out and away from the rags of earth. Around
the base of the rock a serpent is gliding and a skull,
barely visible, lies there in the shadow. Sin and
Death. Whatever may be thought of this as a
painting, as a composition and the presentation of
an idea, it is extremely full of suggestive thought
and must appeal to every soul alive to the struggles
toward a higher and more perfect existence.
He began this painting during the absence of his
wife and thus writes her :
''During my solitary days I work like a hero
going out to conquer— and conquering— a moun-
tain-like resolution, and big brushes do their work.
Day before yesterday I painted, in a few hours, the
color sketch. Yesterday I began the picture, cover-
ing the backgroimd ; to-day all the flesh parts and a
portion of the drapery marched on the canvas, and
to-morrow, if God permits, the whole will be
36 A VISION REALIZED
Always, when his heart was in his work, he
Being very much annoyed by the country lads
who would very often intrude to see what was going
on in that ^^ paint shop," he found his revenge in
painting a satire which he called ^'The Country
Connoisseurs." It was the interior of his studio;
the back of a large canvas, supposed to be that of
^^The Captive Soul," was seen, and before it stood
a group of country worthies of various types, but
all studied from life. A mongrel cur snarled at the
Diana mask which stood against the wall.
This picture made some sensation when it went
to New York, as the critics thought it a sly hit at
them; but the artist was innocent of any such in-
He also painted two other humorous pictures,
^^ Coming home from Meeting" and '^Bob Singing
a New Song."
Again in 1855 he returned to New York and the
next two years were spent mainly in ^^ miserable
bread winning," steel engraving, portrait painting,
and even coloring photographs.
During this time he not only worked at odds and
ends in art, but made other ventures and attempts
to make the money he so badly needed for daily
necessities and so much desired to enable him to
carry out his cherished plans.
He invented an electrical machine which he and
his father made. This proved a failure. He also
became interested in a process for making steel out
of cast iron by electricity. It was the invention of
a Pole named Mayrhof er. He demonstrated it re-
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 37
peatedly before Mr. Oertel, his father, and others,
and had several offers for the patent.
Mr. Oertel says: ''If he will give me $10,000 I
will guarantee to sell for more than three times the
amount offered. Father went down to Mayrhofer
to-day (April 3, 1856) and he accepted my offer of
his own accord and promised me $50,000 if I made
good my words." Mayrhofer offered him all he
could get over $100,000 and of that he said, ''For
the sake of my old debts and the sake of my art I
am covetous— but I could not do that.''
Prominent men were interested and agreed to
pay one million dollars if the process could be
demonstrated to their satisfaction to be as claimed.
Mr. Oertel was very much elated : Here at last was
the money to enable him to have free hand in art
and carry out all his plans.
In the meantime some friend of Mayrhofer, a
Pole, persuaded him to the belief that he was not
going to get enough for his process, and that he
could get him more and the extra money could be
given Kossuth for the cause of Poland.
He had such a hold and influence over Mayr-
hofer that when the test was made he purposely
failed in his demonstration. His friend could not
help him as he had promised, nor could Mr. Oertel
after this, so it came to nothing. Mayrhofer died
soon after and with him the secret. Mr. Oertel
tried many times to produce the result by what he
knew of the process but never succeeded.
As many hopes had been cherished and plans
made on the success of this— which seemed to him
so certain— the disappointment was great. He
38 A VISION REALIZED
wrote his wife : ^ ^ I speculate and toil. Art is almost
gone from my thoughts ; it is a thing that was— and
will be— but is not; it exists now in the chrysalis
state; life is just perceptible by a few twitching
jerks. In the meantime I endeavor to finish my
machine. It is a new peg to hang hopes upon ; we
have had others before this and will have more
after, but God alone decideth our ways.
''Is there no finger of God in the fact that all
my works remain my property while things discon-
nected with art are thrown into my hands ^ Or do
I seek them?''
In the early days of 1857 Capt. Montgomery
C. Meigs came from Washington, seeking among
the artists of New York for one to work upon the
decorations of the Capitol. Oertel was engaged.
This seemed to him a great opening, to work thus
on a national building, and as it offered a regular
salary he saw the chance of being able to save some-
thing for the furtherance of his darling plans of
painting the gi^eat series.
On February 19 he left for Washington to take
up the work, full of enthusiasm and true patriotic
feeling for his adopted country. He wrote his wife
(Feb. 20) ''I have been up to the Capitol. I shall
inscribe my name on its walls either as a man who
will live— or as a nonentity that does not deserve
The first work assigned him was the decoration
of the Senate library. This evidently was decided
at once, for in a letter to his wife (Feb. 21) he says :
^^I have to make four allegorical designs for the
ceiling of the Senate library, each 11 by 6 feet.
These are for frescos. Mr. Brumidi has made
a sketch for them, together with the ornaments,
but I am not to mind his, but follow my own
He made his design and at once began prepara-
tory work. He intended to place allegorical figures
on each of the four fields of the ceiling represent-
ing Poesy, History, Law, and Commerce, and to
group under them on the respective side walls the
greatest American poets, historians, lawyers and
He had worked some weeks on these prepara-
tions when Captain Meigs came to him and asked
as a special favor that he would put off his work in
40 A VISION REALIZED
the building and draw for him the designs of the
State arms for the use of the glass stainers who
were to make the ceiling of the Representatives'
Hall. He showed him how important it was that
they should be put in the hands of an artist of
varied knowledge, as they contain figures, animals,
plants, and a variety of emblems, and that all the
existing authorities were stiff and badly drawn, and
would have to be entirely remodeled. Much against
his will he consented to undertake this task to oblige
Captain Meigs. Nearly a year was spent in the
producing of about 50 water color paintings each
in a 20-inch circle, having to repeat some of them
because he was furnished with incorrect designs for
copy. He then turned with a sense of relief to the
consideration of the frescos. He went up to the
Capitol for material, and in talking with Mr. Kar-
sten, the superintendent, he was asked what room
he was going to paint. He replied, ''The Senate
library." ''But,'' said Mr. Karsten, "Brumidi is
painting that." It seemed impossible; he went up
there at once and found it about half done.
He turned to Captain Meigs for explanation.
That gentleman professed to be surprised, himself,
"regretted it had occurred, etc.," and wished Mr.
Oertel would make another selection. This he did,
choosing a suite of conmaittee rooms, and so notified
Captain Meigs, when he was informed it was not
proposed to decorate these rooms expensively, he
must choose again. He then went over the plans
with Mr. Karsten and found that every part of the
building of importance was already in the hands of
Mr. Brumidi, he having made designs which had
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 41
been accepted by Captain Meigs, been photo-
graphed, and passed into commissions.
He at once sent to the captain the following
indignant letter of protest and resignation :
"Washington, D. C, April 27, 1858.
"Captain M. C. Meigs.
"Dear Sir: I have endeavored three different times since
Saturday to see you, and not succeeding I take this method of
communicating with you.
"In consequence of your last letter of April 23, instant,
annulling my choice of room No. 65 and wishing me to make
another selection, I went at once to the Capitol to do so. The
proposition to 'paint one half of the library, leaving the other
half to Mr. Brumidi' I rejected once before verbally, as you will
recollect. I could not now accept it.
"On carefully reviewing, with Mr. Karsten, the plans of all
the rooms in both the extension wings I learned that there is
in either of them scarcely a single room of importance left, which
is not at present occupied as anticipated by Mr. Brumidi with
a sketch or design for decoration and paintings.
"When last year I responded to your call I did so as an
independent artist subject to no one but your own commissions.
"My position was then carefully defined. Agreeable to your
wishes I submitted to the irksome, laborious work of revising
and redrawing all the various State arms without ever entering
a complaint, trusting the time would arrive when, according to
your promise, I would succeed to a fair, impartial chance as a
self-producing artist. The Senate library was to be my field and
for this I labored hopefully, making studious preparations.
"When ready to begin upon the wall I was unceremoniously
despoiled of my right and commission by Mr. Brumidi. For this
wrong I have obtained no other satisfaction than a letter to Mr.
Brumidi could afford me, informing him that I regard his pro-
ceeding as an 'unjust interference with my rights.'
"But I had looked for an adjustment of my claims to your-
self, and could not honorably accede to a compromise — nor can
42 A VISION REALIZED
"Nor could I, after what passed, accept with self-respect any
work by concession of Mr. Bnimidi; the same insult, once prac-
ticed on me, would be liable to repetition. My feelings of pro-
fessional independence will not brook any other than a position
of republican level with any other artist.
"I could honorably descend to inferior work but not to an
"But there is also another and stronger motive actuating my
present course, from the fact of Mr. Brumidi having already
initiated to himself, for decoration by ornamentation and fres-
cos, nearly every available room in both wings at the Capitol
extension. This truth was not revealed to me but on compulsory
search for those rooms for which nothing had been designed, and
except for this circumstance I might have remained ignorant
yet for a time.
"It would ill become me, as an American citizen, with the
knowledge of these irregular facts, still to persist in writing my
solitary name upon the walls of the nation's first and best
building and to remain unimpressed by the entire absence of
sympathetic national art atmosphere within its spacious halls,
looking in vain around me for congenial society.
"Merely personal injuries I might have passed over and for-
given — to trespass my self upon national ground, I dare not.
"I therefore beg of you, respectfully, to accept herewith my
resignation and to kindly notify me of your acceptance.
"Eespectfully, "Johannes A. Oertel."
This letter was thrown into print by a friend of
Mr. Oertel, though without his knowledge— a gen-
tleman high in position in Washington— and widely
copied, as at that time public sentiment was much
aroused in regard to alleged abuses in the manage-
ment of the Capitol building.
A copy of one of the newspaper articles follows.
This is in Mrs. Oertel's scrap book, and there is
nothing to indicate the paper from which it was
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 43
^^Art at the Capitol.''
^^It is now upwards of two years since I first
began, in my idle way, to call attention to the art
outrages committed by the Autocrat 4n charge of
the Capitol Extension.' A very honest gentleman,
he may have been competent to superintend the lay-
ing of stones and the mixing of mortar as the
worthy and accomplished architect might have
directed. But so inflated was he with his 'brief
authority' that he assumed the dictation of every-
thing, and even of the art decorations, which
remain a monument to his bad taste.
''It has been whispered that in this department
a man named Brumidi (a dauber of speckled men
and red horses in true oyster-saloon style) has
assumed supreme control, receiving $10 a day for
his services. Full proof of this is found in the fol-
lowing letter, written by a gentleman with whom I
am only acquainted by reputation ; but that reputa-
tion is high and honorable."
Here follows Mr. Oertel's letter to Captain
"An Appeal to Congressmen."
"Will not each member of Congress give the
above letter a careful perusal? It needs no com-
ment. Venal editors who wish to have relatives
kept in Meig's employ may call it the work of a
disappointed artist, but it shows that it is not; and
if it is, why, that does not alter the case. I don't
care a snap for Mr. Oertel ; but I do protest, as
every citizen has a right to protest, against having
44 A VISION REALIZED
the entire Capitol disfigured, at immense cost, by
ignorant and incompetent men whose bad taste
flashes out too outrageously to be mistaken.
^^ Don't vote a dollar of appropriation, Messrs.
Congressmen, until the entire decoration is taken
away from Meigs, Brumidi & Co., and placed in the
hands of competent persons ! I have no suggestions
to make as to whom these persons shall be. Let the
President appoint them; let Congress designate
them in the bill ; but let the National Capitol not
resemble a Neapolitan icecream saloon, a French
coffee house, or an English gin palace."
Similar articles appeared in various papers,
quite an excitement was raised over the subject,
a convention of American artists was called at
Washington, and an attempt was made to remedy
the conditions so plainly at variance with the spirit
of American art and art lovers throughout the
This convention met in Washington, March 20,
1858, and having resolved itself into a ^^ National
Art Association" elected the following officers:
Rembrandt Peale, Esq., of Philadelphia, President.
J. R. Lambdin, First Vice President.
H. K. Browne, of New York, Second Vice President.
John Cranch, of Washington, Third Vice President.
H. D. Washington, Secretary.
J. M. Stanley, Treasurer.
Executive Committee. — Dr. Horatio Stone, J. A.
Oertel, H. F. Darbey.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 45
The object was stated as ^^for the purpose of
consolidating the members into an efficient body
and organizing means to promote the interests of
art before the American Congress, and to secure to
native artists the illustration of our national his-
tory in the public buildings of the Government."
A committee was appointed to draft a memorial
to Congress embodying the subjects and purposes
of the artists of the country. The committee pre-
sented a draft of a memorial and the association
It was signed by the members of the Associa-
tion of the National Academy of Design, New
York; Artists' Friend Society of Philadelphia,
Philadelphia Academy, and leading artists of
This ^^ memorial" w^as presented to Congress
May 19 by Mr. Marshall, of Kentucky. It was later
acted on and three of the best artists in the country
were appointed to serve as art commissioners—
Henry K. Browne, sculptor, of New York ; Henry
Peters Gray, painter, also of New York; and
Horatio Stone, sculptor, of Washington. These
were appointed, but with characteristic foresight
no appropriation for salary or expenses was made.
These gentlemen were very willing to make
some sacrifice for the good of the country, but could
not give all the time it would require without some
compensation; so the movement died a natural
death and the Italian decorators continued.
During his stay in Washington Mr. Oertel made
the acquaintance of Charles Lanman, well known
as an author of no ordinary literary merit and also
46 A VISION REALIZED
as an artist, and they became firm friends, the rela-
tion continuing through life.
Though drudging daily at his task of copying
the State arms, his mind was busy on his own de-
signs and ideas, as shown by letters to his wife in
which he exclaims (Aug. 3, 1857) : ^^My mind is
made up for work, and work I will. Yea, work I
must^ to labor into existence all I have planned.
My mind is busy as a bee in my solitude. I should
only need the country and freedom from irksome
duties to make me half crazy with ideas."
He complained bitterly of the *^ distracting
noises of the city," children with drums, tin trum-
pets, etc., and the piano played by a young girl in
the next house.
One day he writes: *^I have comparative quiet
if there were not just now a villain of an organ
grinder about ; not only is the sweet girl gone but
her piano after her. " It is plain to see how irksome
was the task on which he was engaged. In one
letter he breaks out with: '*Pay day again! The
laborer is now going to get his hire, and so in
reality it is. I am on a par with the stone cutters
and tile layers just so long as the State arms last,
and I verily believe they are without end."
During this time he determined to turn his at-
tention to sculpture, though he was unable to carry
out his plans. Of this he says : ^^ There are some of
my compositions especially suited for sculpture,
and they are thoughts it would be a pity to lose ;
and besides this I am aware of my predilection for
form, irrespective of colors and of my choosing
such subjects as in the main appear to as much
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 47
advantage in pure white and black, as in colors,
and perhaps to the only advantage."
He moved his family to Washington in the
spring of 1857 and rented a house on I Street, No.
1357 *^near the park (Franklin Square) where one
may hear the tinkle of cowbells at night." But
once again he must move. His wife and children
returned to Madison about the 1st of May, 1858,
and he to the house of his brother ^^ Fritz" at
Stapleton, Staten Island, where he fitted up a room
for a studio. The failure of the Capitol work was
a great disappointment, yet he did not regret his
action in the matter. He writes (May 13, 1858) :
**Mr. Ensing Miiller was amazed at my appear-
ance. That was natural; but my motives are
acknowledged everywhere. This sympathy of all
is a consolation and an encouragement. God
alone knows what the whole occurrence is good
For the next two years, most of the time at
Brooklyn, he painted principally cattle, sheep, and
horses, in which branch of art he attained consider-
In a criticism upon a collection exhibited by
Snedicor at the National Academy of Design in
1859, the New York Evening Post said :
^^Oertel aims at sentiment as well as life. Less
attractive in color than some others, his pictures
more than make up this deficiency in accuracy of
drawing and composition. As faithful transcripts
of nature his animals leave little to be desired.
They are also moralists, poets, and philosophers.
His cattle not only delight in green pastures ; like
48 A VISION REAUZED
Landseer's, they have a story to tell. The largest
piece in the collection is his '^Rich and Poor"; at
the right is the poor man's cow looking from a
barren and stony roadside with a subdued forlorn
longing into the exuberant pasture where the rich
man's cows are frolicking or resting in their surfeit
and looking at the hungry outsider with almost
human haughtiness and disdain in their expression
over the division wall between. Near by in the
background is the poor man's cottage and a woman
bearing a bundle of sticks on her head, while past
her, enveloping her in dust, gallop a lady and
gentleman on horseback toward their elegant man-
sion on the high ground in the distance.
*^The common story of every day life is here
told as eloquently as it could be expressed in a
This period offered but little opportunity for
the practice of Christian art. Some pictures were
painted, but none of great importance.
All these years the yearning in his soul had to
be satisfied with work done in the late night hours
by crayon or pencil— ^^ to keep my spirit alive," as
he wrote once, ^'for if people prefer to make
stables of their parlors, then in the daytime I
must perforce paint cattle instead of prophets and
While on Staten Island he attempted to gain
financial and artistic independence by going into
dairy farming— that is, he bought cows and had a
partner to care for them and run the business.
This partner was a ^* practical man" and, as is
usual in such cases, ran the farm for his own profit
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 49
alone, and the artist was finally compelled to with-
draw and leave him the business.
He worked very hard to establish this. ^^ Cat-
tle," he writes, ^'all is cattle— horned and un-
horned ; cattle to make cattle, dead ones converted
into live ones. I shall be celebrated yet for my
cattle, whether for dead or live ones is the ques-
tion.'' In December, 1860, he made a drawing
called **The Circling Year," a flying group of four
boyish figures. The following description of this
picture was written by Mrs. Oertel :
"In rapid^ ever circling round, this joyous brotherhood.
O'er the fair face of Earth dispense their varied gifts.
First Cometh Spring — so soft and dewey-eyed.
With sweet reposeful features, and a smile
Benignant and serene. Enwreathed in flowers.
His sway is one of love and gladness, even his tears
With sunbeams bright are mingled.
Then full, ripe, rosy Summer, severs with sickle keen
The bending grain, and round his sun-bronzed brow
Entwines the golden treasures.
Drunk with the purple juice of the rich luscious grape,
Bedecked with tendrils of the vine, luxurious Autumn
Joins the merry band — and danceth on
With joyful shout and roystering, gleeful laugh.
But louder still, hale, hearty, fur-clad Winter
Glides on his way o'er the black glittering ice fields
Upon his steel-shod heel. In wild tempestuous mirth
He passeth by, and gentle Spring again
Flower crowned, resumes his mild and peaceful reign."
In April, 1861, seeking relief from the many
annoyances of city life, and to find a home where
expenses were not so great, he removed to Westerly,
E. I. Here he built a studio and settled down to
earnest and serious work, hoping soon to be able to
take up his religious designs. In this studio some
of his most important paintings were produced.
His first picture there was ^^ Father Time and
his Family." This was a flying group. In the
center Father Time, the conventional old man with
wings, scythe, and hourglass, with a lovely female
figure representing the Year, were surrounded by
the months as children, each bearing typical ob-
jects, fruits, etc. The Year held a cornucopia from
which she poured out a variety of things upon the
earth. An explanation of this painting from his
own pen follows :
*' Father Time and His Family."
*' Symbolical and typical expression is the most
primitive and the most suggestive. It is the
expression of poetry and of poetic art. By simple
emblems a great number of thoughts are often com-
prehended and various and manifold relations
suggested. In the desire to describe forcibly and
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 51
compactly the mind, as by instinct, seizes upon
resemblances or illustrates by analogy. In this
manner many of the deepest truths and broadest
facts are associated in the popular mind with
simple signs and phrases. Time and the Seasons
are thus suggested.
''Prom early antiquity the old, winged man with
hourglass and scythe has told of rapid flight, of
power and death— and every child understands the
symbol. The Seasons have often been sung and
often painted in various manner. Their constantly
recurring changes make everybody familiar with
their characteristics, and hence with their symbols
when represented by art. They are connected with
our lives, our joys, and our griefs. Childhood's
outdoor sports have endeared their varied phases
to our hearts, and the thickening experience of
advancing age deepens that love. We are the
recipients of the blessings they abundantly supply,
of the rich beauties they scatter with a most lavish
prodigality; of the joys and sorrows they bear
along; and of the buoyant hope their very fleetness
and certainty of return inspires. They mark our
existence and its duration upon earth; and when
we are reaped by that solemn mower, 'Time,' we
still hope that some significant flower may peace-
fully bloom over our heads, and our silent graves
be gently enfolded in the wintry vesture as an
emblem of rest after labor.
"In order to represent on the same surface the
changing aspects and gifts of Time, as experienced
and enjoyed by man, it becomes necessary to make
use of poetic license. For this the subdivisions of
52 A VISION REALIZED
time by years and months furnish a universally
understood basis, regarding, for the picture, the
Year as the spouse of old Father Time, and the
twelve months as their offspring, thus constituting,
as it were, a family, and developing the diversified
features of time from one central idea. The repre-
sentation of 'Time' and, to a degree, that of the
* Seasons or Months,' is traditional. The Year, in
the form in which she appears in the picture, is an
invention, as is also the combination of all the
figures into a family.
'' Rapidity of flight that can not be stayed,
resistless vigor and power too strong for created
beings are the marks of 'Time.' With a most
earnest, relentless purpose he watches our fast-
running sands, ready to cut when the last one falls.
His encircling arm hurries on the fair, fruitful
Year, draped in white and girt with the red of joy
and life; and as death envelops and follows life,
so she is shrouded in a black mantle of mourning
and sorrow, the scythe of Time coming in where
the white and black join, ready to sever the golden
cord. Emblems of human experience, from out of
the golden urn of fate, are dropped by the Year
as she passes over the Earth— the jeweled sword
of war and power ; the palm of victory ; the olive
of peace ; pearls and coins of wealth ; the cross of
faith ; the red rose, life, followed by the white rose,
death; the sharp thorn of affliction; and, last, the
ivy of hope. These she empties amidst her chil-
dren, the months, who carry the attributes of their
respective characters, mostly relating to the fruits
borne by each in reward to man's toil; and in this
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 53
manner, also, in turn, humanizing the interest of
^*The blusterer March initiates this idea by
holding the spade and shepherd's horn ; him follows
the husbandman, April, sowing his seed. Joyous
and gentle May, the month of poets, is bending over
these two, tossing from his lap the spontaneous
growth of delicate spring flowers. Then there is
June, the leafy, hay, and rose month; the heated
July, shadowed under his sheaf ; the ripe, auburn-
haired August, mellow like his fruit; the baccha-
nalian September, the connecting link between sum-
mer and autumn. These, in which life renews and
activity prevails in nature, are ranged in front as
belonging to life typified in the Year; and where
floats the dark mantle of death, those months are
situated in which decay begins and gradually
resumes sway. October, in the sere drapery, bears
with the heavy load of fall fruits also the yellow
and the bright autumnal leaf. From his abun-
dance prudent November provides for winter store,
while in December the temporal blessings of the
months are crowned by the choicest spiritual bless-
ing of God to man. His own Son, of which the
Christmas Tree stands as the type, and from it the
tricolor floats, acknowledged emblem of liberty, in
its highest sense most fitly springing from Chris-
tianity. The ice month, January, and the stormy
snow month, February, close the group.
*^The character of allegory is regarded through-
out the whole picture ; forms, colors, and relations
being chosen in reference to expressiveness and
sentiment. Time, with stern power; the Year,
54 A VISION REALIZED
with admonishing gentleness dispensing life and
death, joy and sorrow; the months, fraught with
labor, hopefulness, and blessings, move ever onward
by divine command, and in this constant round, all
of man's earthly experience, from the cradle to the
grave, from the beginning to the end of the world,
is compressed, nor will fail to be so, according to
the promise : ^ While the earth remaineth, seed time
and harvest, and cold and heat, and smnmer and
winter, and day and night, shall not cease.'— Gen.
This picture was exhibited in New York at the
gallery of Goupel & Co. and found a place in the
collection of the late Marshall O. Roberts. It was
the first to give Mr. Oertel a substantial footing
there as a painter.
Early in 1862 he had a fall from a step ladder,
breaking three ribs and his right wrist, which for
a time stopped all work, but in a few weeks he was
again in harness.
^^The Final Harvest" followed in 1862.
This was a flying group of three angels in a
6-foot circle, founded on the text *^The harvest
is the end of the world, and the reapers are the
angels." One angel carries a sheaf of wheat, one
lifts high a golden vessel filled with grapes, and
the third with a saddened face and empty hands
points below, where a lurid fire is burning on the
sea shore, showing that his task has been the burn-
ing of the chaff. This picture was largely exhibi-
ted and enough written about it to make a volume.
In Boston the papers at last refused to publish
anything more, as a controversy had arisen in
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 55
regard to the doctrine involved. One of these
articles from a Boston paper follows :
* ' Final Harvest. ' '
**What differentiates Westerly from all other
places at this moment, is the fact that the artist,
Johannes Oertel, has his studio there.
" ^If ever thou should'st come by choice or chance
To Modena, pray thee forget it not.
Enter the house, and look awhile upon a picture there,
'Tis of three angels in their glorious youth.'
^*The subject of the picture is *The Final Har-
vest.' The Eeapers are the angels. The end of all
things has come. Time shall be no longer. A
black waste spreads over what was once the earth.
There is a suggestion of a ruined city, and a smoke,
on which are reflected lurid lights from below,
indicating the fire that goeth not out. But above
the earth which was and is not, soaring to the
Heaven which is their home, are the immortal
^^We have all seen angels in other pictures.
Over beautiful, hiunan forms, more or less exalted,
floating in drapery, is painted, wings of quill and
feather are added, and you have your angel com-
^^But in Mr. Oertel 's picture the robes of right-
eousness are a part of the angelic essence, and the
wings are powers mighty and harmonious.
*^The central flgure bears a sheaf of grain, *He
shall gather the wheat into His garners.'
56 A VISION REALIZED
^*One knows the meaning of the word seraphic
when one has seen this angel's face.
^^It wears the rapture of him whom God keeps
forever in perfect peace.
*'The coloring of this figure is white, with blue
which becomes deeper in the wings.
^'If this angel represents, nay is, Purity and
Peace, that at the left is Purity and Love. It is
clothed in robes of flame, and the color deepens
with intense and burning ardors in the upward-
soaring wings. Even the feet are not so still as
those of the first, and the arms are extended to
their full length.
**The second angel bears aloft a vessel of
^'You understand that this is a religious
picture. The motive is Christian, the execution
devout. The whole thought is scriptural. 'He
shall send His angels and they shall gather His
elect. ' ' They shall be Mine in the day when I make
up My jewels.' Wheat and grapes. His own choic-
est gifts to man, such will the Lord require from
field and vineyard. May there not yet be another
meaning in the sheaf and clusters borne hence by
the Angelic Harvesters? These two were often
used by the Lord as typical of Himself. *I am the
true vine,' 'I am the bread of life'; and these were
chosen also as the sacramental emblems of His most
precious body and blood. But the third angel;
what is his work to gather? *And the chaff into
unquenchable fire.' 'In the time of harvest, I will
say to the reapers, gather ye together first the tares,
and bind them in bundles to burn them.' This
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 57
reaper has performed his task. One hand is placed
on the breast, the other hangs by the side.
'^I thought there was more strength in the
beauty of these hands than the others.
^^ There is a wonderful nobleness in this third
angel; a profound measureless joy and love in the
face, and the burnished emerald wings gleam
bright, no shadow dinmiing them from Hhe smoke
of their torment, ' in the corner below his hand.
^^On all the faces is the sign manual of Heaven.
The hands adore, the feet are holy, the wings seem
glancing and glowing with awful splendors that
kindle anew as we gaze.
^^Had the artist told us that not upon canvas,
not by the aid of oils and ochres and pigments of
mundane origin and use he had made this picture,
but that these angels had suddenly floated out of
their glowing Heaven and w^ere projected on a
background of cloud, we must have believed him.
''The 'Final Harvest' is to be exhibited in New
York next month, and I wished that it w^as also
to be shown here— that it was to stay here.
"I was about to say that its native state ought
to possess such a marvel of beauty, but Ehode
Island is not its native state. We may say that it
was painted here, but to none of the original
thirteen does its nativity belong.
*'Its birthplace was above the stars. Never,
surely, since that Sabbath when it began to dawn
toward the first day of the week, has there been on
this earth such 'a vision of angels.'
''I say nothing, I know nothing, of the technical
execution of this painting. Art critics, who know
58 A VISION REALIZED
the words and how to use them, may do that here-
after, if they can. I have only aimed to express my
own feeling of the matchless beauty of what I saw,
to speak of the divine idea so nobly interpreted.
*' There was no stammering in that utterance in
the studio of Westerly, believe me, poor as is the
speech of your correspondent in attempting to
convey an impression of it."
This picture would have sold readily but for its
size and circular shape of frame. One gentleman
said he would take it, but found that he had no
space in his house large enough to hang it, and so
cancelled the contract. During the many moves
which followed in the ensuing years the frame was
broken up and the picture so damaged that it was
During this period he commenced in crayon the
preparatory cartoon for the first of the great series.
It was 5 by 4 feet in size and was studied and
drawn with the greatest accuracy, but only in out-
When ^*The Final Harvest" went to New York
for exhibition, the drawing of ^^The Dispensations
of Promise and the Law" was taken down also, to
be shown to a few friends of whose understanding
and appreciation the artist was assured. A pub-
lisher who saw it persuaded him to work it over
and finish it up to full effect in light and shade, so
that it could be photographed, being very enthu-
siastic in his hopes for it in the market. He did so,
working almost night and day on it to get it done
in a given time, making serious inroads upon his
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 59
health, as by the time it was finished he broke down
completely. He suffered intense pain which nothing
would relieve but the most violent exercise. He
would run for miles, returning exhausted, and then
he could sleep a short time, only to repeat the
exercise when he awakened or suffer great agony.
The doctors did not know what was the trouble
nor could they relieve him in any way. Mrs. Oertel
grew desperate as time went on and he became
worse instead of better, and as a last resort she
took her little boy ^^ Fritz," then nearly 7 years
old, and without telling Mr. Oertel where she was
going set out for Newark, N. J., to visit and consult
a clairvoyant— Dr. Perkins— of whom she had
heard from friends in her old home.
When Dr. Perkins was ^^put to sleep" by his
wife with a lock of Mr. Oertel's hair pressed to his
forehead he immediately began to act like him when
in his studio ; he walked up and down, backed off as
if from a picture, and in response to Mrs. Oertel's
question ^^who is it. Doctor^" he replied: ^^ It is a
man— your husband— a great man and a great
work to do. You think he is going to die ; he is sick
enough, but he can't die; he has too much work to
do, too many great works to produce. He canH die
now ; he must wait until it is all finished."
Prophetic words, truly. Whatever one may
think of this kind of manifestation, certain it is
that his words were true, and certain it is that
after taking his medicine a few days Mr. Oertel
was free from pain and working away with his
The cartoon was sent to New York and photo-
60 A VISION REALIZED
graphed, but never found the recognition that the
publisher predicted for it.
After having it handsomely framed— under
glass— it was placed on exhibition at the National
Academy. Here it was given a place in a corner
of the corridor, and the critics said that there was
^'not a single important work on the walls that
No wonder the heart of the sensitive enthusiast
sank at this. These works were the children of his
soul rather than of his intellect ; they were a por-
tion of his life, and therefore when the world
treated them slightingly he was wounded deeply,
not for himself, but because of the Divine subjects
of which they speak. He was hurt, but not in the
least shaken in his resolves for the series. He went
on just as if he had never met the rebuff, seeking
only to find work that might be remunerative
enough to prove a steppingstone to gain the height
of his desires— to be able to go on and paint the
four grand designs.
This cartoon was damaged and torn in moving
it from place to place and he cast it aside as worth-
less, but after his death it was discovered rolled up
with some old drawing paper and it was placed in
the hands of an expert in Washington who mounted
it on cloth and almost completely restored it.
The war now raged in the South and some of
Mr. OertePs friends urged him to go to the scene
of the conflict and make studies, as in their opinion
when the time of peace came every record of the
strife would be of interest. In accordance with
this advice he set out September 21, 1862, spent
several days in New York buying his outfit, and on
September 28, he went to Washington, leaving
there for the front October 3, when he joined the
Sixth New York Cavalry, then under General
Burnside, at Pleasant Valley, Md.
His letters to his wife show the usual enthu-
siasm which he displayed in all undertakings where
he felt he was doing his duty. From New York he
wrote: '^I expect to get a special letter of intro-
duction to General B. I do not want to be classed
among the ' Special artists. ' I expect to serve my
coimtry as but few can, and men like General B.
ought to assist me.
*'I am leaving for Washington; once more I
shall see that city on a strange enterprise. Before
I paused there ; now my field lies beyond. The feel-
ing of being cast adrift upon an untried sea is mine.
^^I have put my new painting box in order and
this took me some time, as I find tinkering neces-
sary after every mechanic.
62 A VISION REALIZED
^^I bought a pair of cavalry boots and a rubber
blanket; likewise a soldier cap in wbich I look
^a la militaire' to the amusement of my friends, who
never saw me but with exuberance of wild hair
and an easy felt hat in a backward inclination
planted on top.
^^The little defenseless group of a mother and
two children on the platform of the depot in West-
erly at night is ever before my sight. May God
bless and preserve you, and permit us to meet again
in the safety and happiness of home and quiet.
^^I go from all I value to obey a strange call.
May the almighty arm of the good God never depart
from shielding and guiding me."
He soon fell into the ways of soldier life, going
on reconnaissance along the front with General
Burnside's bodyguard and doing picket duty, and
says ^^This is an exciting life full of wild interest
—I rather like it."
^^I have material for fine subjects and have
made studies for 'An Army Train,' he writes from
Warrenton, Va., November 11, 1862.
''It seems at first a subject of little importance,
but to those who know it it is a subject illustrating
much of a soldier's life and the life of a large army.
Indeed one of those countless, endless trains is cal-
culated to show more forcibly the magnitude and
ponderousness of a great army than the scattered
camps over a stretch of many miles and invisible
one from another. Nor is it the wagons only that
move in the train ; the army that has marched ahead
leaves its many representatives. There is the
straggler from the ranks who throws his musket
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 63
and knapsack upon some team and saunters along
leisurely, and more, there is the poor, weary, sick
man, who is willing but can stagger no further,
and, like the overworked horse or mule he is almost
forgotten and left by the wayside. Forsaken,
smouldering campfires all along tell where a rest
has been made, lame horses tied to the backs of
wagons are dragged along. Stony roads, with ruts
and steep, rough hills impose dreaded difficulties
on man and beast ; and many more and sometimes
thrilling incidents conform with the variety of
anmiunition and company wagon, the hay wagon,
the ambulance, the caisson, and quartermaster, sur-
geons, etc. This is an army train. On the moun-
tains of Virginia the eye can sometimes trace it for
miles, winding, disappearing, and appearing again,
still further and further off, till the white wagon
tops seem like sheep in single file on the distant
^^I shall make a large picture of it, and am now
at work on the material.
^^ To-day I saw General McClellan depart from
his army for home. General Burnside accom-
panied him to the depot. I followed an impulse
and went into the car to bid him good-bye. It
needed but a mention of my name.
**I begged leave to shake hands with him as I
might never have another opportunity. He was
sad and seemed to struggle with his feelings, and
after the train had got in motion he raised the car
window and gave one more long look upon the
crowd of officers behind, then shut it down again.
*' Burnside also was unusually quiet, and for
64 A VISION REALIZED
once Ms fine teeth were not so prominent when he
spoke— I was going to say smiled, but he did not
smile, not to-day—^ Some political deviltry has been
^^The army has made a tremendous demonstra-
tion at his leave-taking and feel bereaved of a
friend and father. The event has saddened me
also, though I never before spoke to the man, but I
believe in him. May his removal at this juncture,
when the whole army is in motion against the foe,
work no great mischief to the country!"
This was the time of which has been said that it
would only have needed a word from General Mc-
Clellan for him to have returned to Washington at
the head of his army as Dictator.
The month of November was spent in camps
at Liberty, Morrisville, and Eichards Ford, on
the Rappahannock, where he was ^^busy making
sketches in oil, a pile of which is constantly increas-
ing," and he adds, ^^If a battle does not result in or
around Fredericksburg I am mistaken.
^^We are but 2 miles this side of Falmouth
(Nov. 28), and the army is enlarging constantly—
all now is life, expectation, and constant drill. The
army lies close together, as it would before a great
battle is fought, and the land literally swarms with
an armed host. Nothing meets the eye than the
sight of martial life, and martial sounds the ear.
The plains and the woods, the hills and the valleys,
are vast camps, and parks of wagons and dark
columns of men moving hither and thither; and
supply trains going and coming; and new armies
moving thickly in, to fill what vacant place is left.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 65
It is a grand spectacle. They cover indeed 'the
face of the earth. '
^*It can never be rendered in a picture, only a
hint conveyed, and this I propose to do in the com-
position I have sketched.
*^I am becoming more and more enlightened
about the way of painting 'The Army Train' every
day as I move among this new and tragic life all
around me and see the men and objects which
are to compose part of it, and I believe the
picture will not be a failure. I can be literal,
when needed, and literal I will be, even to the
very rags, and dust, and dirt. The people shall see
their soldier as he is and the people will not be un-
merciful of the truth.
''You know my maxim is to strike few, but hard
blows. Little pictures fret a man 's energies ; I have
tried that. Few men can paint comprehensively,
but many will be the penny productions cooked up
from photographs and fancy which will flood the
market after this war. I shall not belong to the
latter class ; I will endeavor to tell my story by one
or two works of importance, and the one in con-
templation will have as great variety of feature
crowded into it as anything I have yet made."
So he continued to prepare for the work which
he believed it his duty to execute even though it
was not to his liking. He made about 80 studies
and, the last of December, left camp and returned
north to his home in Westerly, intending to go on
at once painting ' ' The Army Train " or " The Army
in Motion" as he decided to call it.
This plan he never carried out, partly because
66 A VISION REALIZED
the public seemed rather to prefer to bury the
remembrance of these events in oblivion than to
have them perpetuated on canvas, but more because
he realized that there was so little in it all to fill his
own mind that he feared he would not be able to
keep his interest alive long enough to finish it
Under date of June 2, 1863, Mrs. Oertel wrote a
friend: ^^I do not believe that my husband will
ever paint the first stroke on that army picture
after all. He is evidently very much disinclined to
the work ; besides he feels that his years are fleeing
away and if he is ever to work in his Master's
cause it is time he was about it."
He painted, however, six war scenes of consider-
able size, most of them treated as animal pictures.
Two of them were bought by Sir Morton Peto, the
great English financier, and taken by him, with
Bierstadt's ^^Eocky Mountains,'' to England. One,
*^The Virginia Turnpike," showed a six-mule team
and army wagon laboring up a hill in the awful
mud which signalized General Burnside's winter
before Petersburg as ' ' the mud campaign. ' ' It was
bought by a company of gentlemen and presented
to Ex-Governor Fenton, of New York.
He also painted ^^The Gallop of Three" and
*^The Raid" for Mr. J. E. Paine, of New York.
**The Raid" was sent to the Brooklyn Art Asso-
ciation's Exhibition (Dec. 22-26, 1865), by Mr.
Paine, about which he wrote the artist: ^*The
^hanging committee' gave it the central position on
the long or unbroken wall, and what I should con-
sider the ^ place of honor,' certainly the most prom-
^ " ■■;,
l^F', ■ ■;■;--■ ;|^
m . ■ ■^■v
THE ROCK OF AGES
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 67
inent and the one of all others that I should have
chosen for it.
^^I have no hesitation in saying that it had a
hundred times more attention bestowed on it than
any other picture, and gave more pleasure, not only
to the pleasure seekers merely, but to the thought-
ful and intelligent.
**The picture was considered one of extraor-
dinary power and very great merit.''
On the death of Mr. Paine this picture passed
into the hands of his son-in-law, Mr. J. A. Edwards,
of Chicago, 111.
''The Walk to Emmaus," ''Easter Morning,"
"Mary Magdalene at the Sepulchre," and other
religious works were painted, all remaining in
Ehode Island and never being exhibited. Then
came the work about which so much has been writ-
ten and which has been reproduced and is to be
found all over the world where art has penetrated
at all, in the palaces of the rich and cultivated, in
the homes of the poor, ignorant and lowly, some-
times changed, it is true, in some of its details, but
always bearing the same name, carrying the same
message, and teaching the same lesson of Faith (as
it was at first called) and trust in the cross of
Christ-" The Rock of Ages."
As has been said, the artist's name has not fol-
lowed this work. Had it done so, no name of
modern times would be better known. From first
to last a strange fatality seemed to hover over it
and to prevent the reaping of any benefit by the
artist either in a financial way or as to reputation.
It has been copied in every possible way, produced
68 A VISION REALIZED
in every process, given away as premiiim on the
purchase of soap or of a cheap magazine. It has
been used by churches to illustrate their pamphlets
and circulars, stamped on medals, and sold as a
*^ picture postal'' for a penny, yet rarely, if ever, in
all these various publications has the name of the
artist been mentioned. It has been described as
**the greatest religious picture," "the most popular
American painting," etc., but through all this is
never seen the statement *^ painted by Oertel," and
though the copies sold by his publisher bore his
name, yet few there are of all the millions who
know and love it can tell whence it came.
Can this be said of any work as popular and of
such widespread distribution— if indeed such a
It has been made the subject of scores of news-
paper articles, and its story varied in as many
ways. No doubt the writers received their regular
pay per line for all this, but never, so far as is
known, did it result in the slightest benefit to the
The whole story of this work had best be told
here, though it extends over a number of years.
The title, as entered in his record book (June
10, 1867) is ^' Saved, or an Emblematic Representa-
tion of Christian Faith."
Later he called it ^* Faith"; then the name of
*^the Rock of Ages" was adopted as being the more
The first sketch of the subject was made in the
album of a Westerly lady, in pencil. Next a small
painting, and then a painting 12 by 18 inches, which
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 69
was presented to Mrs. Rowse Babcock, of Westerly,
after which came a larger painting 26 by 49 inches.
This was sold the second day of exhibition, at
Shaus's, in New York, to Mr. Augustus Storrs, of
Mr. Oertel did not realize the importance of this
design, but when it came before the public the
popular heart was touched as it has not been by
any other modern picture, and he soon had offers
to purchase the copyright and to publish. George
T. James, of New York, was selected as the pub-
lisher and copies both in photograph and chromo
were made and sold rapidly.
When it was decided to publish the picture Mr.
Storrs was requested to loan his copy for the pur-
pose of making the necessary photographs, but this
he refused to do, so Mr. Oertel painted another for
This was 36 by 61 inches. Some years later it
was sold to Mr. William Fogg, of New York. After
his death his collection of paintings was sold at
auction, and it is understood that this copy at that
time was purchased for the Museum of Art, Cin-
Two editions of the chromo, made in France,
sold in London before one copy was brought to this
country. The explanation of this is easily seen
when it is known that Mr. James claimed all the
receipts from foreign sales and paid royalty only
on what was disposed of in the United States.
For some time they could not be printed fast
enough to supply the demand.
For once it seemed he had achieved a financial
70 A VISION REALIZED
success. But, alas, the popularity was so great that
it aroused the greed of the dealers in such wares.
They took the trouble to look closely into the mat-
ter of the copyright and discovered a ^^flaw."
Mr. Oertel had always considered himself a New
York artist, although living in Rhode Island, and
all his art business was done in New York. So in
New York he took out the copyright. The law, of
which he was ignorant, said that it must be taken
out in the State in which the artist resided, or in
the general office in Washington, D. C.
So the picture pirates commenced publishing
for themselves various forms of cheap imitations.
Oertel's publisher got out injunctions against them
and three expensive law suits ensued in defense of
the copyright which the artist had to wage single
handed, as Mr. James insisted that under the
terms of the contract he had no responsibility in
the matter. The artist paid the expenses from his
royalty of one-fourth while the publisher looked on
complacently, pocketing the while his three-fourths
The first two suits, in New York City were
decided in favor of the artist. Judge Cardoza
holding that, the technical flaw in the copyright
notwithstanding, the artist had a right to the income
from the work of his own brains and hand— a just
decision indeed. In fhe third trial, however, which
was held in Chicago, the decision was against him,
the copyright was broken, and from that time on
the **Rock of Ages" was the property of anyone
who chose to use it.
It would seem that David Thoreau was far from
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 71
wrong when he said, ^^I have learned that trade
curses everything it handles ; and though you trade
in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade
attaches to the business." Even this *^ message
from heaven" could not be made an object of trade
without being subjected to the curse, and it is no
wonder that a man with the principles and aims of
Oertel preferred rather to give away his religious
pictures than to have them brought under its bane-
ful influences and be tainted, as he said, by the
spirit of the money changers whom Christ scourged
from the Temple.
In 1895, July 10, another copy was made, 24 by
40 inches, ^^for my son Eugene, to be reproduced
in the ** photochrome process." This copy is still
(1915) the property of his son. Dr. T. E. Oertel, of
Augusta, Ga. Several small copies were made at
various times as presents to his friends.
It was painted again in 1898 (August), this time
life size, 7 feet 8 inches by 12 feet ^^for purpose of
exhibition and possible publication."
The exhibition referred to was arranged for by
H. Jay Smith, whose business was to exhibit for
various artists, and who came with good indorse-
ment. Several paintings were placed in his hands,
of which mention will be made later, and these were
exhibited in Boston, Mass., that fall.
After the exhibition closed all the pictures were
returned except the large *^Eock of Ages" and an
animal piece which Smith said he wished to buy.
The ^^Eock of Ages" he expected to exhibit in
Chicago, whence he wrote saying he had arrived
and would *^soon send payment for the ponies.^ ^
72 A VISION REALIZED
Once more Chicago was fatal, as neither Smith
nor the paintings were ever heard from again.
Every effort to learn of his whereabouts proved
abortive, nor has the slightest trace ever been dis-
covered of the big canvas.
Such is the history of this famous design. Even
though the name of the artist be unknown, yet will
it continue to live throughout the ages, ever telling
its story to the world ; and though obscure in life
yet in this will he live while the world endures.
As he himself wrote, *^I wish to preach even
more than instruct; and if this photograph goes
out by the thousands, I shall have delivered so
many earnest sermons and continue to deliver them
even when my stanamering tongue is silent in the
In October, 1867, he began a series of eight
designs illustrating the poem of William CuUen
Bryant, ^^ Waiting by the Gate," and at that time
the first, *'The Gate,'' was made.
A plan was now evolved by which it was hoped
to introduce copies of ^'The Dispensations of
Promise and the Law" throughout the country.
It was thought that clergymen, especially those of
the Episcopal Church, would take an interest in
this work if it could be brought to their notice, and
the artist's wife undertook the thankless task of
attempting to see and interest them. Armed with
letters of introduction from her pastor in Westerly
and others she visited New York and several east-
ern cities, but succeeded in awakening no interest—
finding least where most was expected.
In this effort weeks were spent going from city
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 73
to city and tramping from door to door carrying a
heavy portfolio of specimens. Rebuff, refusal, and
even insult was met— little encouragement— but she
kept bravely on until satisfied that nothing could
be accomplished in this way, and returned home.
The success of ^^Faith" ('^Eock of Ages")
prompted Mr. Oertel to produce also *'Hope" and
''Charity," but they were never popular and had
The first was a female figure standing by the
side of a rock on a bluff overlooking the sea and
gazing out over the expanse of water— where was
seen a ship standing in toward the land.
The second was the same scene as the ''Faith,"
only the figure clinging to the cross held on with
one hand only while with the other she helped a
sister to climb up on the rock.
In a circular issued by Mr. James they were
thus described :
"patient in suffering, joyful in hope."
This is not the ancient allegorical maiden who
has been leaning from time immemorial on an
anchor, but a transcript of a human soul, the senti-
ment and expression of which is truly told in the
passage of scripture here quoted. Hope bears upon
a rock (typifying Christ), to which clings the ever-
While the shadows of a parting tempest are
fleeting across the lower part of her figure her face
looks up into the bright clear blue above, dressed
in the white robe of imputed righteousness, bearing
74 A VISION REALIZED
the red mantle of Joy clasped with a golden
Upon her bosom, suspended below this emblem
of Hope, is a Jet Cross— the Cross not of Faith
only but also of self-denial and suffering.
The sky and ocean are symbolical of the storms
of life, and upon the shore are strewn wrecks of
the companion picture to the ^^rock of ages."
Taking the same scene of a storm-beaten Cross
in the midst of a raging sea ; a female clinging, but
with a more assured grasp, shows her grateful
appreciation by assisting a sister straggler, almost
gone, who has just secured a feeble hold. A most
beautiful exposition of that highest of charities—
true Christian charity which cares for perishing
souls around her.
Social life was not in any way neglected.
Though spending most of his time in his studio, he
made many friends and took an active interest in
public matters. His music was kept up and he
played his flute weekly with Dr. Gorham, who also
played the flute, and Edwin Vose, pianist. He had
with him at various times several pupils who came
in as members of his family and as friends. Among
these should be mentioned Miss Cornelia A. Conant
and Miss Mary Gove, of New York, and Edward L.
Hyde, of Mystic, Conn., afterward Eev. E. L. Hyde,
of Boston, Mass. No more appreciative pupil or
true and stanch friend ever blessed the ^^ Master's"
life than *^ Edward." Through all the years of life
they were close friends and regular correspondents.
The ^^ Master" wrote to him as he did to no other,
and from him always received sjonpathy and
appreciation. When there came to the notice of
^^ Edward" any idea or scheme by which it seemed
possible the ^^ Master" might benefit, he never
failed to bring it forward and ever remained the
same true friend and brother.
In 1902 the ^^ Master" writes him thus:
* * My Dear Friend of Many Years Ago : Indeed
how long it has been since we lived and worked
together in the Westerly studio ! And how many
76 A VISION REALIZED
and varied have been the experiences of each of us !
In truth, I sometimes, thinking back and trying to
locate facts, have to unravel them like knotted
thread to get at the proper sequence. But the
essence, the vital parts, and the prominent person-
alities always stand out distinct in memory; and
surely your name could never be effaced or remem-
bered with diminished affection and interest."
The last letter the '^Master" wrote was penned
with trembling hand to this, his dearest friend,
whose interest and love had never flagged. All the
letters ever written to this friend by either the
^^ Master" or his wife were preserved, and when he
was informed that the compiling of a biography of
Mr. Oertel was contemplated he gave them all to
the latter 's sons to be used in furthering the pur-
pose. Many passages from these are quoted, and it
is a matter of regret that some can not be given
During the stay in Westerly Mr. Oertel formed
a friendship with the Rev. John C. Middleton, who
was then rector of the Episcopal Church in Mystic,
Conn. Here also was one with whom he was in
close sympathy and he was closely associated with
him in later years when rector of St. Paul's parish,
Glen Cove, L. I.
Though not a large man, weighing not over
165 lbs., Mr. Oertel was very powerful and very
proud of his strength and willing at any time to
exhibit it. On one occasion, at a gathering of
friends when he was alluded to as *^a small man"
he walked to the center of the room, placed his
hands on the floor, and invited two of the largest
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 77
men present to stand on them. Those who came
forward weighed 220 and 236 pounds, respectively.
When they had each placed a foot on one of his
hands he rose with them, carried them across the
room, and gave them a toss upward as he let them
fall to the floor. He was a very rapid walker and
never seemed to tire ; his stride was like that of a
thoroughbred horse, and this he maintained mile
after mile with machine-like regularity. He would
not ^^keep step'' with a companion, nor moderate
his speed; they must step with him and keep up
with him or be left behind. Sometimes he walked
over to Mystic, 6 miles distant, to see his friend
Middleton, allowing himself one hour each way and
always coming in on time.
Of his home life there is little to relate. His
studio was his home, and his work hours there from
12 to 24, according to the exigencies of the case.
He always had a couch or lounge in his room where
he rested and slept either day or night when
exhausted nature demanded. He came into the
house to retire at any hour, from 10 o'clock p. m.
to daylight— or not at all, as was often the case
when engaged on important work.
The first call to meals was seldom heeded. When
the bell had been rung for him the family took their
places at table and waited. If he did not come in
some minutes one of the children was sent to ask if
he had heard the bell. Often he was so absorbed in
his work that he had not ; frequently he would say,
rather impatiently, ^^Yes, I come," in which case
there was nothing to do but wait, and continue to
wait imtil he appeared. Often the dishes of food
78 A VISION REALIZED
were returned to the kitchen to be kept warm until
it pleased him to come. A meal was never eaten
without him, for at the table was about the only
time the family were together and after it was over
he would often remain for some time and talk.
Useless noise or chatter he could not endure and
had little patience with the children at their play.
Such a thing as a drum, horn, or any noise-making
toy was a forbidden article in his household.
He had infinite patience to bestow on his work,
but none at all with the petty annoyances of every-
The bark of a dog or the continuous cackle of a
hen would soon bring him from his room with the
impatient ejaculation '^ March off, you beast, and
stop your confounded noise."
He loved to talk of his work to any visitor
who showed intelligence and appreciation or who
seemed to have an honest desire for information,
but he shut up like a clam in the presence of those
who came out of mere idle curiosity and who pre-
sumed to know much and to criticize, or as if duty
bound to express admiration.
At one time, when he had on the easel a fine
marine— the setting sun throwing a fiood of golden
light over a rough sea— a lady visitor entered and
with a glance at the canvas exclaimed ^*0h, how
pretty! a prairie on fire!" He used to tell this
anecdote with great gusto, adding that the funniest
part of it and the joke on him was that the lady
left without changing her opinion.
In 1867 he took an important step which largely
influenced his subsequent life. Having been for a
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 79
long time teaching a young ladies' Bible class,
which Bible lessons had gradually taken the form
of lectures, and on account of the illness of the
rector being also obliged to act as lay reader of the
services, the rector pressed him to take deacon's
orders, as he was doing the work of a deacon with-
out the authority. After much consideration he
consented and prepared at once for his examina-
tion. He was ordained to the diaconate in June,
1867, by Bishop Clark, of Rhode Island, under the
canon **for restricted deacons," and had no inten-
tion of going further into the ministry, but only
desiring to make himself more helpful to his rector.
At the end of seven years it seemed imperative
for him to be nearer New York, and in the spring
of 1868 he removed to Tarrytown-on-Hudson.
It had been his intention to reside permanently in
this section, and property near Irvington had
previously been purchased; but in the meantime
the land adjoining had been sold off to a most
undesirable class of people and he was forced to
dispose of his holding for what it would then bring,
being, of course, less than the purchase price.
The following summer he went for a short time
with his brother Fritz to the Catskill Mountains,
and while there met a young lady, a student of art,
Miss Laura Norwood, of Lenoir, N. C. From her
he learned much of the general situation of the
South at that time, and particularly of conditions
existing in her home town— the people impover-
ished by the war, without the means to educate their
children ; the church building having been used as a
hospital by the soldiers and in a most dilapidated
80 A VISION REALIZED
and neglected condition, and no church services held
for months at a time.
She also gave a glowing description of the
natural beauties and advantages of that part of the
country— its grand and imposing mountains, crys-
tal streams, and forest of noble pines and oaks ; its
incomparable climate and life-giving air ; and the
exceeding cheapness of all the real necessities of
All this appealed directly to the mind of the
artist, the missionary, the lover of nature and of
Here was a land in which he could live on the
moderate income which he had from his publica-
tions and go on and paint his great designs ; here
he could use his means to the best advantage, and
here, being independent of any remuneration for
clerical services, he could do the most good for his
Church and for his people.
The cry ^^come and help us" seemed to echo in
his ears, and after his return to Tarrytown and a
consultation with his wife it was decided to make
In April, 1869, with his family of three chil-
dren and his father and mother he set out for his
new home. A tedious journey it was then—to
Washington, D. C, by train ; stage across the city
to the wharf at foot of Seventh Street; steamer
down the Potomac River to Aquia Creek; by the
old Virginia Midland Railroad to Salisbury, N. C,
and from thence over the Western North Carolina
Railroad to its terminus at Hickory (then ^^ Hick-
ory Tavern") . From this point to Lenoir the jour-
ney had to be made by ^* stage."
Hickory was reached about noon of the second
day, and, after a dinner of ham, eggs, and corn
bread at the ^^ Tavern," a double log cabin then
kept by ^^Snediker," all climbed into the rickety
stage and were slowly dragged over the 20 miles of
miserable road by two sorry and raw-boned nags,
relics of ante bellum days, to Lenoir, the future
mountain home where it was hoped so much good
could be done and so much artistic work accom-
plished. Lenoir at that time was an educational
center for that section of the south, and several
schools were there maintained. Its people were
impoverished by the war and everything was in a
sad state of dilapidation and neglect, but here were
culture and refinement ; petty strife and bickering.
82 A VISION REALIZED
so common in the average small town, were here
miknown; the place was as yet mitouched by the
spirit of commercialism, and those of every sect
and opinion lived together in peace and harmony.
All were poor, so poverty was not considered ; all
needed help, so each one helped his neighbor. An
ideal place indeed it was for such work as he pro-
posed to do in art, an unlimited field it offered for
him as a missionary ; considering all this, and that
his new home was in the midst of the most beau-
tiful scenery in the world, what wonder the artist
was enthusiastic over the prospect.
The whole party went to Miss Norwood's plan-
tation home, ''Oak Lawn," and were received with
open arms. Here they remained until the house-
hold and studio goods, shipped from New York,
arrived, when they took up their abode at the
rectory, a most unique little building standing in
a grove of gigantic oaks and white pines.
It seemed as if the time had at last arrived
when his mind was to be liberated from carking
care and from a burden of liabilities which, though
small in themselves, had yet been insurmountable
in the years of struggle behind him, and that at
last in peace and quiet he could take up the execu-
tion of his great works and bring them to com-
pletion. He at once began to build a studio large
enough for the proper execution of such work.
But just here, when scarcely six months in Lenoir,
and before the studio was completed, came the blow
which deprived him of his income, destroyed all his
hopes, and left him again in a hand-to-hand fight
with uncertainties, having loaded himself already
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 83
with Church and educational work in his parish
which could not be shaken off, and having also the
terrible drain of lawyers' fees to meet. Among
other things, a mission school had been established
several miles in the country for the education of
the poor whites. He had depended on his income
from the publications. Mr. James informed him
that there was no longer anything to be expected
from that source. He wrote (Nov. 18, 1869) : ^^The
robbers have copied the 'Eock of Ages' in all sizes
and for all prices and defy me to my face, and they
say that as soon as I put ^Charity' on the market
they will do the same with that. ' '
To show the far-reaching effect of this blow to
him is quoted below a letter written by one of his
parishioners and signed ^^ Gratitude."
^^ME. OERTEL 'S ^EOCK OF AGES.'
Artist-Clergyman in his Southern Home — Faith exemplified in a life.
[Correspondence of Laura Lenoir Norwood in the Journal of Commerce.]
'TiENOiR, Caldwell County, Western North Carolina,
February 5, 1870.
"In a late number of the Journal of Commerce there is an
account of the lawsuit in regard to the copyright of Johannes A.
OertePs picture, *The Eock of Ages,' and the decision of the
court in Mr. Oertel's favor. Perhaps, as a lover of art, you felt
some interest in the case, and I think you were glad that the
decision of the court secured to the gifted artist the proceeds
of his own work.
"The losing party in the suit (Mr. Wood) is advised by his
lawyers to appeal and carry the case into another court or another
term of the court, and if he does so the decision may be reversed,
or, if it is affirmed, the expenses of the suit will be heavy, and
almost more than the artist can sustain.
"I see in the artist's life a far more beautiful example of the
84 A VISION REALIZED
power of faith than any picture can ever teach; and if you
could see it, too, you would think some of your time and strength
well spent in saying a word that may very possibly, as I believe,
prolong a life so devoted to good works, as well as so honorable
in the record of American art.
"We who see Mr. Oertel's daily life among us do not need
to buy his lovely picture of 'Faith.' For the painter of 'The
Rock of Ages' is the rector of our little church; our faithful,
loving pastor, who came to us as an unlooked-for blessing (when
we were too poor to have a minister), and asked that he might
do us good for Christ's sake alone. The income derived from
the publication of the picture in question (though it would seem
very small in New York, as he is only paid for the copyright),
was sufficient in our cheap country to support his family in the
simple way in which they live, and also to minister to the wants
of many poor and friendless ones who have learned to bless his
name. We hoped that in the beauty of our scenery, our delight-
ful climate, and the quiet and peace which he loves, Mr. Oertel
might find some pleasures in return for the many advantages
which he gave up to become our missionary; but we did not
expect him to share our poverty as well as our loneliness, and
to endure hardships which, alas, we can not relieve ! For, indeed,
we are truly poor now, and the years since the war have done
nothing yet to build up our desolated country.
"You do not want to hear of this, and we do not wish to
complain. Our lovely mountain country is too remote to feel
the waves of returning prosperity, but we have learned to endure
patiently many hardships and to look calmly on the graves of
our buried hopes.
"You who live in the midst of so much brightness and motion,
and feel the bounding of the pulse of life through a great city,
can not imagine what it is to be as we are. If you did know
it, you would perhaps realize what a blessing Mr. Oertel's faith
has brought to us, for he believes the word of our Saviour, that
it is more blessed to give than to receive. And he gives us the
comfort we most dearly prize in his faithful and loving minis-
"You perhaps know that Mr. Oertel is a clergyman of the
Episcopal Church, but no one to hear that he is both artist and
minister would think that he could accomplish so much good
in the latter character as he does.
"Real devotion and unsparing self-denial for Christ's sake
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 85
are so rare in our time that one must see the results of such
a life in order to believe in it.
"The members of this parish feel themselves unworthy of
the treasure which they possess in such a pastor, and the earnest
and beautiful sermons which go straight to the hearts of his
people are made more eifective by the thought that they are
generally written in the silent hours of the night, after a day
of hard work in a profession which certainly taxes the brain not
lightly. Heaven knows we would gladly save our pastor from
some of the hardships which he endures for our sakes, but it
seems that there is no selfishness in his heart to which we can
appeal. The poor, the sorrowing, the troubled are around him,
and he will love them and help them ; the ignorant are here and
he will teach them; and his gentle wife is ever ready to aid in
every new labor of love. Is it not enough that he must bear
on his heart the burdens of others, that all beyond a mere main-
tenance is freely given to the cause of Christ, and that his life
is one of constant toil, but must his means of living be taken
from him now, when the locks are whitening on his temples?
"He has struggled through long years of poverty and trial,
true always to his high ideal of Christian art, and true to
himself in the childlike simplicity and unquestioning faith which
have upheld him, and is he not entitled to enjoy what is his
own, and was so dearly earned?
"Is it only a question of money that will be decided in this
suit when the appeal is taken?
Great as this disappointment and serious the
situation, it must be met.
If he must ' ' depend on his brush, ' ' as Mr. James
said, he would *^make it fly," and Mrs. Oertel at
once appealed to friends at the North for assistance
in their parish work. ^^But oh,'' she writes a
friend, ^^the Church work and everybody besides
so needs hard cash that I can not help wish for it.
Our work so grows upon us that we are perfectly
appalled. The mission school list has now increased
to about 50 names; we have Sunday school out
86 A VISION REALIZED
there, too. I go out three times each week, and
that makes a weekly walk of about 17 miles. We
do so much need teachers for this and other schools,
both white and colored. We have now in these
schools nearly 200 under instructions. Oh, for
more fellow- workers ! ' '
Thus it was that the minister's wife met this
emergency, by thorough cooperation in all of his
undertakings, by personal self-sacrifice and unre-
mitting toil, and be it remembered all was a gift, all
was done ' ' In His Name, ' ' without money and with-
out price. Not only this, they continued to give
from their slender means. None who asked went
away empty handed so long as there was anything
left to give.
When he had money, during the first months, he
was what might be termed extravagant, but not in
the indulgence of himself or family. He writes in
one of his letters, ''I have lent Mr $400 to buy
a farm. It is a great privilege to be able to help so
worthy a man.'' This was ^4ent," but so far as is
known was never returned and never asked for.
Groceries were ordered in quantity from New York
and the poor country folk came to the rectory for
their coffee, sugar, medicine, etc., as they would to
a store, except that at the store they would have to
trade in some of their meagre stock of produce—
a chicken, some eggs, or medicinal roots dug in
the mountains— here it was freely given, and in
the pastor's wife they found a ready listener to
all their tales of woe and were always sure from
her to receive words of encouragement and sym-
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 87
When the crash came and the flow of money
stopped, these pensioners did not ; nor did they seem
to understand how it could be that there was not
the usual sack of coffee and barrel of sugar from
which to supply their needs. They continued to
come as usual with empty baskets, which seldom if
ever went out of the rectory grounds in the same
state. Notes like these frequently went from house
to studio: '^ Johnny, give B. a dollar to buy some
^shucks' for his cow." ^^Give H. some money
to-day; they are all sick," etc.
Considerable in the way of contributions for
the parish was sent by friends at the North, both
in money, clothes, and various articles which it was
thought might be of use. One kindly disposed lady
forwarded a ^^case of Shaker bonnets" for the mis-
sion school children. Those who know the **po'
whites" can picture them wearing ^^ Shaker bon-
nets." The people of Christ Church, Tarrytown,
having put in a new organ in the church there, sent
down their old one, the same instrument mentioned
by Washington Irving in one of his letters. It was
a complete wreck, but Mr. Oertel with his own
hands rebuilt it, making new pipes, a new wind
chest and bellows, and then a carved and illiuni-
nated case. It was placed in the church and is there
doing duty still. He also made for the church a
carved reredos and altar. This was his first attempt
at wood carving. He did not have to learn to
carve; he just did it. As he once said, '*It is
perfectly simple; what I want is in the wood;
all I have to do is to cut away what don't belong
88 A VISION REALIZED
Description of the Eeredos in St. James' Church
Lenoir, N. C.
[Written by Clinton A. Cilley.]
**Eev. Mr. Oertel on Christmas day placed in
the chancel of St. James' Church the result of
nearly two years' labor, and presented it to the
^^The work consists of a painting and its frame.
The painting, on a backgi^ound of gold, shows the
Saviour offering bread and wine to a male and a
female communicant, and is characterized by the
same depth of religious feeling and faithfulness of
rendering that in his former paintings have given
the distinguished artist so high a rank among the
professors of Christian art.
^^ Beautiful as is the picture, however, it is more
than matched by the exquisitely carved and elab-
orated frame. This is an architectural design, and
reminds one of the portal of some mediaeval cathe-
dral. There are the arch and pillars of the door-
way, the buttresses, the sloping roof, the lofty
spires, and the cross that crowns the structure.
Over the picture, forming the arch, is a strikingly
natural representation in chestnut wood of grapes
and heads of wheat, the fruit, the foliage, and even
the tendrils of the former being carved with an
exactness that would be surprising even were the
material better adapted to a work of such infinite
delicacy. The slopes of the roof are adorned with
crockets, seemingly alike, but in truth each in some
slight particular varying from the other. On each
side of the roof are pinnacles ; back of them stand
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 89
two angels with wings folded as if they had just
alighted there; and crowning the whole towers a
''On every part of this masterpiece, composed
of over 400 pieces of wood, chestnut, oak, poplar,
holly, cherry, beech, and pine, where work could
be put it has been lavished. Every part susceptible
of ornamentation has been beautified by the touch
of carving tools wielded as deftly as the artist's
''Flowers of many kinds are here; the rose and
cactus blush in cherry and the tulip blooms in yellow
poplar, while over various parts of the structure
the climbing ivy throws its veil. No carving of so
lofty design or so skilful workmanship beautifies
the chancel of any church in America, and the
costly cathedrals of Europe can boast of few orna-
ments as splendid as this.
"No description can do it justice, and to see it
will well repay a visit to our mountain town."
In the meanwhile the necessities of the parish
seemed to make it imperative that he should take
priest's orders. The bishop especially desired it,
and he finally yielded and bent himself to the
preparatory study. He was ordained by Bishop
Atkinson, August, 1871.
In addition to the parish at Lenoir he had two
mission stations at which he held services on alter-
nate Sundays. The "Chapel of Peace," the mission
before mentioned, 3 miles south of the village, and
another station in the Yadkin Valley, 8 miles dis-
tant. This Chapel of Peace was built by contribu-
tion from friends at a distance and voluntary work
90 A VISION REALIZED
of the people. When nearly completed it was
wrecked by a severe storm, but, imdamited by the
disaster the rector and his helpers rebuilt it. This
work from its inception was attended with the
greatest difficulties. First a day and Sunday school
was started and soon had an attendance of over 40
scholars; this was held in a ramshackle old log
schoolhouse. The teachers were all voluntary
workers, and one might have thought that such a
chance for education would have been welcomed by
all; but there were many who opposed the move-
ment. All sorts of stories were circulated amongst
the poor ignorant people. ^^The children would be
taken away as soon as sufficient hold on them was
obtained, and killed. ' ' Another story was that they
would be taken to town and ^^made to worship the
golden calf." Such was the depth of ignorance
and superstition among these poor people.
The farmer who owned the land on which the
schoolhouse stood at last refused to allow it to be
used for the purpose. Then it was that a move was
made to build. Friends at the North contributed
liberally and by dint of persistent effort on the part
of the rector and his faithful people it was at last
completed and a school maintained for many years.
In order that those of his parish might have the
advantages thus afforded and in the general inter-
est of education, he decided to establish a school for
girls. This was done, and the first session opened
February 26, 1872, Miss Mary A. Massenberg
teacher of the English branches and Miss M. Mag-
dalena Oertel teacher of French and music, under
the name of **St. James' School for Girls."
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 91
It was the intention of the rector to advance the
interests of the school as rapidly as possible, and to
make it a diocesan institute. By this was meant
that the grounds and buildings contemplated should
be deeded to the diocese and be subject to the
authority of the bishop and such trustees as he
In this undertaking no effort was spared to
reduce expenses to pupils to the minimum. It was
continuous self-denial on the part of all the workers
concerned in the interest of Church education.
The rector gave his time and contributed also
in money; his wife opened her house to the girls
and cared for those who boarded there as for her
own, having nothing in return save the bare cost of
board, based on the lowest estimate, and which in
fact often failed to meet expenses.
The teachers worked for a mere pittance. Miss
Massenberg having only $100 per year, her board
and lodging being contributed by the rector. His
daughter had no regular salary, turning back most
of what she received into the fund for the building
up of the school.
It was opened in the vestry room of the church,
but by superhuman efforts a school room was built
on to the rectory, and though still unfinished was
occupied by the end of the first session.
In 1873 the name of the school was changed to
* ^ St. Euphemia 's Hall, " as it was not for St. James '
During 1874 it was under the direction of Eev.
C. T. Bland. About a year later the whole scheme
had to be abandoned for lack of f imds and support.
92 A VISION REALIZED
A failure ? Yes ; from one point of view it was.
It struggled into existence, its existence was a con-
stant struggle, and it died for want of strength to
But w^hen it is considered what was accom-
plished during the time of life can it be classed as
a failure ?
Many of the girls received education and train-
ing absolutely free, and but for this would have
had none. Indeed, no one was turned away ; if they
could pay the moderate amount charged for tuition
and board, well and good; if they could not, the
school and the home of the rector were open to
them just the same.
It is impossible for those who were in that school
and in that home not to have carried the teaching
and influence through life to their own benefit.
Here again must ^^bookkeeping be kept by double
entry; one for this world, one for the next."
The rector and his wife never regretted having
made the effort, much as it cost them.
Contributions were at times made by interested
friends, but the main burden of the undertaking
was borne by the rector and his devoted wife and
Had he received from the Church at large the
cooperation the movement deserved, the result
would have been quite different.
Parish duties now took much of his time. The
strain has been so great, of study and disappoint-
ment—study to prepare for his examination for the
priesthood and disappointment in regard to his
publications and the outcome of the lawsuits which
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 93
deprived him of the means to carry out his plans
both in art and for the good of his people— that
his health gave way and he suffered desperately
with his head, so much so that physicians feared
softening of the brain. And what wonder. Even
his iron constitution and strength which enabled
him to handle dumb-bells of 50 pounds each as if
they were toys could not stand what he forced him-
self to do. For instance, after a week of work from
6 a. m. until early morning hours, he presided over
the Sunday school at 9 o'clock on Sunday, held
services at 11 o'clock, rushed home to a hasty lunch
and then mounted his horse for a ten-mile ride over
the mountains to the Yadkin Vallley, where he
held service at 3 p. m. and then rode home again,
often arriving late at night. This was his ''day
His sermons were usually written on Saturday
night and it was often daylight on Sunday morn-
ing before he came in the house to rest. No call of
distress was unheeded by day or by night, in fair
weather or in foul, over rough roads, mountain
paths, and swollen streams, on horseback or on foot,
he visited the poor and needy, giving comfort, sym-
pathy, and help.
He had made something of a study of medicine
and so doctored the body as well as the soul, giving
in this as in all else to all who asked or needed.
In writing of his condition at this time Mrs.
Oertel says :
''His brain is in very bad condition ; he schemes
continually, in such an impatient way ; everything
annoys and irritates him ; he works, works, works,
94 A VISION REALIZED
and plans, plans, plans in the fiercest and most ex-
cited manner. I fear softening of the brain."
Dr. Perkins told him ^*You must rein in your
horses or they will run away with you" and this
they seemed to be doing.
But his work was not yet done. He changed his
manner of working, took more sleep, and at last
Still he continued to do double duty, keeping up
with all the details of parish work and at the same
time doing everything possible with brush and
pencil that would bring in the money so sadly
His friends urged him to rest and take a trip
into the higher mountain country. To this he con-
sented, and spent some two weeks on horseback
riding through that magnificent region.
In later years he wrote a description of this
trip imder the caption ^^On horseback through the
mountains" from which it is well to quote a few
passages, as the artist shows in these pen pictures
quite as plainly, and with as much strength, as ever
with brush or pencil.
'^ There they were," he says, *'the Grandfather,
the Eoan, the Table Eock, Hawksbill, and the Black
Range. I had been wont to gaze often across the
many miles at their ethereal summits, lifting them-
selves with a giant repose and power high over their
companions, often with that peculiar wistful emo-
tion that seizes the mind when alone on the ocean
shore on a still day and an unbroken mystery of
deep blue like the mantle of eternity spread upon
the far outreaching waters.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 95
^^ Mountains and sea have a certain kinship not-
withstanding their opposite character. They be-
guile the susceptible soul into similar moods. So
does the clear unfathomable sky. So does the
mighty firmament with its miracles of glory.
Whatever invites the mind to excursions into vast
expanse, draws it onward, out of itself and away
far off to where the distance hides the unknown and
maybe the unattainable, stirs up a strange and irre-
sistible longing, a sad delight, a delirium of wakeful
dreaming, feeling from the night of our earthly
prison with the antennae of the spirit for news
from the unseen world.
^^Do you know why in the symbolism of color
blue is the emblem of truth ? It is the blue we look
into when striving to penetrate the distance, the
ocean, the sky. But what we gaze into seems to
recede more, to grow deeper, to become more un-
^^The peaks on the horizon, massive and yet
unsubstantial in their glorification of trans-
parent blue; the indigo line of the sea that cuts
with a straight razor edge your inquisitive
stare into what lies beyond; the vast empyrean
that seems so near and only tells you when at
night the remote myriads of nebulae astonish
the astronomer as he watches through the powerful
telescope that no one has ever yet looked to its
limits— these all conceal the knowledge which in
part only they reveal.
^^Blue signifies mystery. What is remote, with-
held from the vision and hidden, is wrapped in a
veil of blue, the * daughter of darkness and of the
96 A VISION REALIZED
light'— emblem of truth, which is made known and
yet forever disclosing itself.
^^ And so in the wondrous trinity of colors it sig-
nifies the Divine Spirit, the Revealer of secrets, the
Giver of knowledge, the Fountain of wisdom, the
Incomprehensible, Unknowable, the All encom-
He had as guide and companion a genuine old-
time planter who was enthusiastic over this moun-
tain country, and owned a considerable estate
among those ^^ fixed billows of the earth." Of him
he says: ^^Now this excellent and educated gentle-
man was just the guide I wanted. None other than
an enthusiast can be your best leader and teacher
in any matter. Beware of machine men when you
wish to learn. They will give you, with all honesty
in the giving, nothing but husks. It is all they have
and are capable of knowing. They stick to outside
as if it were covered with burrs or pitch. The
secret to read the inner life— the soul— of things
they have not the talisman to discover. But my
friend was aglow from head to foot with this sub-
ject. He was in love with it— and people can not
be in love without a heart. Those mountains spoke
in majestic tone to his affections. They had been
his faithful companions for many years. They
showed him their hidden beauties. They whis-
pered into his ear their tales of stored-up treas-
ures. He knew each twist in the links of their
tremendous chain, the intricate sinuosity of their
passes and paths and roads, the names of their
cliffs, the flow and individuality of their sparkling
waters, their varied, abundant verdure, and the
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 97
signs they hang out aroimd their summits as proph-
esies of sunshine or storm. He also was com-
municative without garrulity, a traveler accus-
tomed to the horse, attentive, polite, acquainted
with the manners of the people and easily satisfied
with their fare and accommodations. I was
fortunate in having such a guide."
Mr. Oertel was a great admirer of the horse,
fond of riding and at home in the saddle. After
describing his mount on this occasion he says:
^^And when a man feels the living moving power
under him that obeys his every wish— the untamed
woods about him, a promising sky overhead— and
has just enough money in his pocket for moderate
fare and an excellent feeling of independence and
manly energy does not quicken his pulse, put a rod
of steel into his back and fire and gladness into his
eye, he is not fit to travel among the ramparts of
liberty nor ride the noble beast of war and the
desert, but deserves to have his joints cracked, his
bowels churned, and his soft brains beaten like bat-
ter on the back of a vicious mule that now and then
can salute his brother with low-dropped jaw by his
renowned philosophic exclamation."
He speaks first of the timber growth, which he
describes as being ''of a size that dwarfs the woods
about New York into respectable shrubs."
''Think," he says, "of the gorgeous rhododen-
dron shooting up snake-like trunks to the height of
16 and 18 feet before the glossy spear-headed
foliage expands itself in clustered masses with
purple magnificence of bloom on the end of every
branch ! And then imagine whole slopes covered in
98 A VISION REALIZED
June with that wealth of royal splendor; the
somber blush of sunset cloud spread out on moun-
tain side; hemlocks stretching between the main
spurs of the *' Grandfather" for a number of miles
and which my experienced guide computed of an
average diameter of 4 feet ; some prostrate colossals
over which, 20 and 30 feet from their roots, we
could scarcely see as we attempted to surmount
them ; the spindling weeds of the lowlands here con-
stituting a forest smiling the praises of the gen-
erous bosom that nourishes them.
^^Our first objective point was the Grandfather
mountain. For many months I had seen its impos-
ing outline toward the setting sun. It heaved up
over the lesser ridges with a commanding, wide-
spreading, angular severity,— a salient feature in
the wavy blue that could be traced from the Vir-
ginia line on the North to almost that of South
Carolina in the Southwest.
^'The name it bears is not a mere fancy; indeed
I do not know but there is in that name a poetic
appropriateness, whether intended or not, more
far-reaching than it has in the mouth of people
who use it so often. Seen from the south or north,
the long profile of the mountain exhibits in a clear-
cut outline the features of a bearded man. It is a
remarkable face: the high intellectual forehead;
the nose of projecting aquiline strength; the dis-
tinctly marked moustache shading a firm mouth;
the chin rising from a bold depression and ending
in a long beard— a grand, calm, majestic face, up-
turned to the sky as if the enormous giant were
lying in solemn repose on his back, the undulating
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 99
length of his body stretching westward for near a
hundred miles in the continuation of the ''Blue
Eidge. " It is no mere knob or piece of rock, but a
whole mountain somewhat higher than Mount
Washington in New Hampshire, a face of truly
colossal, godlike dimensions such as Milton scarcely
fancied when he extolled the tall stature of his
prince of fallen spirits ; dwindling into dwarfs the
Genii rising from the uncorked bottle in the Ara-
bian Nights, or the fabled bird of the Talmud that
stood in the deepest part of the ocean with the water
reaching only to his knees. The gods and heroes of
the Iliad are microscopic pygmies compared to it.
That is something of a face, tossing up its features
for about seven miles, with a horned helmet at the
upper end of several miles more. You will grant
that old North Carolina contains a veritable and
most venerable giant !
''And think how long he has lain there and
looked up with the same unchanging profile at the
silent stars! The nations of the earth are mere
ephemera to him. Their boasted empires are insti-
tutions like the dissolving pictures of a stereopti-
con. He counted his many untold ages already
when the Sphinx began to raise his mysterious head
and the pyramids were piled against the sky.
"Brief four thousand years have left upon their
flinty sides the traces of decay ; but he reposes now
as green and strong and young as when he saw the
day on which creation smiled first upon the pure
primeval human pair. The sun's determined fire
that beat into his face with each recurring summer
scorched there no scars. The bitter blasts of winter
100 A VISION REALIZED
for all these centuries have not disturbed his
solemn calm. Ten thousand tempests raging in
untamed fury over him could not so much as cause
one wrinkle on that mighty brow. The lightning
spent, the thunder still, the clouds roll off and leave
him gazing in primitive sereneness as ever he had
'^However often and again the flames like mon-
strous serpents run up his sides and lay the forest
waste, they only singe the down upon his cheeks but
can not harm the unmoved giant's form. The
earliest kiss of morning ray bathes him in rosy
light, and the departing king of day robes him in
purple melancholy. He smiles or he is sad, or stern
and dark and lowering, or covered dreamily as with
a veil for sleep— but there is always the same grand
godlike impassiveness of line ; his moods are things
of surface only that ruffle not his majesty of mien.
'^And pray of what might he be thinking?
What does he see with all that steadfast upward
look ? Most certainly he contemplates not anything
of earth! That gaze must be a silently adoring
seraph's in waiting before the * great white
throne.' What are to him the noisy strifes of
men ? What care has he for change of kings and
politics and for the schemes that surge the millions
here below ?
^' Their history resolved its tortuous troubled
length around the globe, a trail of blood and woe, of
toil, and tears, and death, unheeded all by him.
The wild red man that tracked in ages past the
panther and the wolf across his brow ; and now the
white that pops the rifle on his face at deer and
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 101
prowling bear, are both to him alike. He marks
their habitation with stalwart ruggedness, and
keeps his watch in awful solitude. His thoughts
are up on high. He never turns for aught on earth
but with an everlasting glance he looks full hard
into the infinite— by day and night, in storm and
calm, from age to age, with only one long, great,
unfathomable thought of dread Divinity."
In describing the ascent of this grand peak he
speaks of the last quarter mile being the roughest
part of the work ^'requiring a sharp, determined
conflict, like many another enterprise in the battles
of mind and matter, that reserves the most formi-
dable opposition for near its summit." * * * ^^The
dark and solemn balsam fir was now the dominant
growth. It veils the mountain's brow with massive
shade— a somber gloom of earnestness becoming
to the contemplative mood of ^Grandfather' who
rests as on a pillow upon the sportive shades the
changing woods put on far down around his base ;
the downy, mellow, delicately varied gown of infant
Spring; the emerald fulness and fresh, exultant
strength of Summer; the gorgeous symphony of
tint that paints the robe of the expiring year ; and
the sweet nunlike grey of Winter that holds in
cloistered seclusion for a few short months impa-
tient, budding life. But that mighty Pace above
wears one unchanging hue of darksome green.
The innumerable company of closely serried pines
are the only fit emblem of its calm, strong stability
of mood. And as the eye drops down the vast sweep
and mounts up again at the further crest that be-
gins the formation of ^Grandfather's' face, the
102 A VISION REALIZED
pointed cones crowd as thick as grass and all their
millions bend with one obedient impulse to the
south, not infrequently blasted by the power that
rules up there with rude violence, the northwest
^* Every tree-top inclines fixedly in one direction
and tells its story of struggle and battle-scarred
endurance. The pine is the only tree for such a life.
God made it for the hard places of the earth.
*^At last the lessening pines let the sky appear
overhead, and a sharp turn through the dense brush
brought us out upon the summit.
^*Did you ever step upon the giddy edge of a
high mountain in that sudden way"? It is very
much like launching bodily into space and sends a
thrill of surprised ecstasy through the frame, an
electric tingling in every nerve as if all at once the
solid ground had vanished from under the feet and
one were floating in air.
'^ Above, below, and round about, everything is
blue. The mountain base itself looks unsubstantial.
It is swimming on a heaving sea.
^^ There was but just room enough for our small
company of three among the rocks and bushes
where the absence of pines left a free outlook. I
had a seat of heather as springy as can be found on
the mountains of Scotland ; rather a luxury among
the North Carolina ranges where it grows only here
and there on the lofty summits.
^' There I sat and looked— and the look was
almost supersensuous delight. But do not expect
a rhapsody on what I saw ! What idea can the most
picturesque word-painting convey of such a scene
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 103
unless you have beheld something similar'? And if
you have— then— well, recall vividly the sight! It
will not be exactly like the one from 'Grandfather' ;
but it will refresh in you that altogether unique
sensation, that of lifting up out of common exist-
ence, that cutting loose from the lower dust with all
its leaden cares and petty doings, that full-breath-
ing, soaring energy of soul which is answered by
every fiber of the body ; that daring of spirit all at
once conscious of its own broad pinions despite the
clay still riveting it to the earth. You will know
the leaps of a hundred miles straight out made by
the joy-intoxicated eyes; the delirious plunges
downward into vast abysses of amethyst and sap-
phire ; the giant strides that skip with the glad free-
dom of youth from peak to peak, across the long-
rolling ridges, among the leagues of complex
sinuosity in the valleys.
''You will know also that with such an illimit-
able horizon about you, among such colossal
surroundings, you feel very little indeed, more dis-
posed to true humility of soul than you thought
possible when disporting below among your kind
in their assemblies where fashion and vanity flutter
and scheme for a brief glance of recognition; for
up there on those silent heights one is in a two-fold
sense breathing a purer atmosphere— and nearer
"And then, if possible, get for 15 minutes by
yourself ; be all alone where human voices can not
reach your ear nor other influences disturb, and a
something super-earthly will steal upon you, an
over-mastering awe as of an oppressive mystery, at
104 A VISION REALIZED
once grand in its manifestation of power, and
soothing like a benediction of peace from the deep
sky overhead. One comprehends why the Saviour
of men should have chosen the lonely mountain top
for prayer— and there continued all night."
A visit to the falls of the Linville river called
forth the following :
*'A waterfall is always strangely interesting
and attractive whether it slides down over a many-
colored rocky incline with lisping splash ; or skips
in fan-like cascades of silver thread from rounded
ledge ; or pours a single stream of light from a dizzy
wall, collecting its misty rain in the pool below ; or
leaps out with a bold bound for the plunge into the
darkness of a chasm, it has its own mysterious
charm of energetic life.
^'Let it be a little rill only, trembling into flakes
and spray in the joyful descent, or the cataract of
a mile in extent, rolling a thimdering flood with
awful majesty over the yawning abyss, there is a
fascination in the unceasing commotion, the daring
precipitancy, the silvery gleam or glitter or flash,
the spray unfolding like a vestal veil, the spiritual
form so stable in general feature, so everlastingly
changeful in the detail of its swift-moving parts.
Even the waste water of the commonest milldam, a
thin, glassy sheet split into many ribbons with care-
less frolic as to their evenness of width, shares with
the most romantic cascade in shady glen, or the
wild fury of a river's headlong rush into a thousand
feet of frowning gorge, the same interest that is
always new and intense only in different degree.
** Water is the lifeblood of nature. Its pulsa-
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 105
tions on lake or ocean, in meadow brook or moun-
tain torrent, in modest rivulet or gliding expanse of
an Amazon that drains a continent, correspond too
nearly with the throbbings and variable moods in
man's own veins not to touch his liveliest sym-
pathies. And therefore he will undertake long
journeys and climb dangerous places with toil and
fatigue just to feast upon the sight of a waterfall
and let its living beauty or grandeur electrify the
forces of his nature to bound and toss and leap in
harmony with the wonderful element."
The first artistic work done in the new studio
was a set of paintings for the Church of the Heav-
enly Rest, Fifth Avenue, New York City. As
Church work they were painted for a mere pittance.
These pictures are five in number. The central
canvas is 13 feet high. It bears the figure of the
Saviour as our High Priest in Heaven. *^He ever
liveth to make intercession for us." He stands
upon the clouds, in the full robes of the High
Priest ; His hands spread out, showing the sacred
wounds ; on His head a mitre of gold ; and a golden
censer in His right hand, from which the smoking
incense ascends. As the figure is lighted from
above, the shadow beneath, by the outstretching of
the arms, forms a cross in beautiful significance
under his feet now.
The face is solemn and earnest; the eyes up-
lifted and truly full of intercession; the whole
image very intense in expression. It is 8J feet in
height. The other four figures are 6 feet high.
They are attendant angels, representing the Cheru-
bim and Seraphim. The two which come next the
106 A VISION REALIZED
center— the Seraphim— are draped in white and
red and with uplifted hands and adoring faces per-
sonify glowing, rapturous love. The two outer
ones— the Cherubim— are draped in white and hlue.
They stand with folded hands in passionless medi-
tation, eternal knowledge and eternal truth ex-
pressed upon their coimtenances.
These paintings were on exhibition at the studio
for several days and the announcement of an art
reception made quite a stir in the little community.
The schools were given one day and all came—
teachers and pupils. Many persons came from
great distances— 20, 30, and even 70 miles— on pur-
pose to see these pictures. This did not mean
coming comfortably seated in a railroad car, but
traveling on horseback or in vehicles over rough
mountain roads, fording dangerous streams, and
imdergoing much fatigue and exposure, the more so
as the weather was persistently rainy all the time.
The next work was ^^ Darkness and Light," a
young girl reading to an old blind man. This was
presented to Bishop Atkinson, of North Carolina.
There are no entries in his record of works pro-
duced for the years 1870-74, but his letters show
that in spite of his numerous duties as priest the
artist was by no means idle. A design of the Cruci-
fixion was made which w^as published as a steel
engraving. *^When I Rise to Worlds Unknown
and Behold Thee on Thy Throne" was painted.
The wild ocean spreads below, the rocky cross is
there, the figure is loosened from it and rising above
it, with outstretched arms and enraptured face;
and, in the clouds, amid a flood of light is a vision
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 107
of Christ on His throne, surrounded by His angels.
He expressed himself as thinking this picture bet-
ter than ^^The Rock of Ages," but would not re-
serve the copyright because the purchaser had
suggested the subject.
The series of designs illustrating William Cul-
len Bryant's *^ Waiting by the Gate," begun in
Westerly, was taken up and finished. Of these the
poet wrote him, *^ You have indeed made a poem out
of my poor verses."
There were eight in number, one for each
stanza, and were sent to Mr. James in New York,
who had reproductions made and placed them on
Of the result of this Mrs. Oertel writes :
^*I think it is easy to see why they failed. No
one has said anything against them as works of art
—indeed they are highly praised; but they are
about Death and the fashionable crowds who fre-
quent the picture stores pronounce them Herrible.'
The truth is, they have sermons in them and the
multitude will not be preached to that way."
In the early part of 1873 he made plans to go to
It was quite evident that little could be expected
from the sale of his pictures, especially such sub-
jects as he wished and most cared to paint, these
coming before the public as painted in America and
by an American artist.
At the same time he believed that if such works
were offered as having been painted abroad they
would be viewed in a much more favorable light.
Also it appeared that abroad such works as he
wished to produce would be more appreciated and
there, especially in his native country, he would
receive the encouragement and support denied him
He therefore determined to go to Dresden and
there locate for a time and endeavor to make money
to pay his debts and place himself in a position to
go on with his greater works.
An arrangement was made with his publisher
to furnish the funds necessary for the journey and
to supply a small amount monthly to meet current
However, after he had made many preparations
for the trip, Mr. James informed him it would be
impossible for him to furnish the funds promised.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 109
He then determined to make the necessary
amount himself and set out on a tour of southern
cities to paint portraits, going first to Rock Hill,
S. C, the home of one of his former pupils. Miss
Annie Jones, afterwards Mrs. Eobertson, of
From there he writes Mrs. Oertel : ''If I am not
successful in making a sufficient amount to keep up
our school and have a surplus we shall, though in
utter sorrow, have to break up family and perhaps
home. I tremble at the thought, but the sad work
has already begun, and God only knows where it
will stop. I greatly fear that the gloominess of our
affairs has not yet reached its apex."
''And later, from Salem, N. C. :
"It truly appears that our cup of sorrow is not
yet full, though it has been filling near the brim
these three years ; but let us bravely hope still, even
to the last.
"If I am obliged to continue portrait painting,
or anything away from Lenoir, I must resign my
"Your last letter read as solemn as the sighing
storm in the cedars of Salem graveyard avenue. Is
it the prelude of our farewell from Lenoir? I fear
we shall shortly be driven to that, for how can we
hold out under the circumstances'? How can I
prevent it, even if all my earnings go into that
During this period of portrait painting he also
did much ministerial work and in the evenings
wood carving, as he had taken his tools with him for
the express purpose.
no A VISION REALIZED
He went home for a week at Christmas, 1873,
and then returned to Salem. From Salem he went
to Charlotte, N. C, where he had an exhibition of a
number of his paintings, including ^^The Final
Harvest," which had been on exhibition for some
time in Raleigh. He was much discouraged by the
life he was compelled to lead and the class of work
he had to do.
In his letters to his wife he made plans of
various kinds to ^^save the school." One of these
was to offer his studio building for a schoolhouse if
the bishop would pledge support, and it was deter-
mined to put the matter before him at the conven-
tion soon to be held at Wilmington.
He also decided to give up the European trip
and work to pay his debts and make a new start.
Though a considerable sum had been realized from
portrait painting it was all absorbed as fast as made
by paying pressing debts and keeping up the school.
May 8, 1874, he writes: ^^The hymn of poor
Newman has been ringing much in my head—
^Lead, kindly Light'— and particularly the line *I
do not ask to see the distant scene. One step enough
for me', so good-bye conjecture and speculation and
welcome faith and hope."
May 22, from Wilmington he writes : **I am not
encouraged about school affairs. I think we will
have to fight that out pretty much alone. We can
hope for no help from the bishop. Probably, the
best course is what you (wife) suggest, to carry it
through the present year."
While in Wilmington he was requested to take
charge of the parish of Dr. Watson (afterwards
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 1 1 1
bishop), and did so for three months. After this
he resumed his portrait painting in Charlotte.
Every effort was now made and every bit of
energy put in to the paying of debts— debts which
had not been incurred on his personal account but
in an effort to build up school and parish. Alas, the
odds against him w^ere too great for even the Hercu-
lean efforts he made to overcome, too great in spite
of the patient and resourceful wife who bravely
faced the desperate situation at home and in his
absence bore the brunt of the battle. An insight
into the cause of much of the difficulty is given on
reading a letter written by Mrs. Oertel to a friend
^^ You know we have the school here ; last session
we had the teacher, her niece, and four school girls
boarding with us. As three of them, the teacher,
her niece and one of the girls were ^dead heads',
and the other three left without paying one cent on
their bills, you can imagine that my financial condi-
tion has not been the most prosperous.
^^We have fought valiantly for the school the
past two years ; if He will accept and bless the work,
well; if not, why, then, well, too; He knows best."
Many things in this wandering life were hard
for him to endure. ^'1 am getting very tired," he
says, ^^of my present life. Visions of art float
ahead and of a congenial atmosphere which I every-
where so sadly miss, among a people who are very
good but can give me nothing I need, nor sympathy
with my efforts in the manner I require.
*^Iron fetters hold me down and chafe my soul,
and were it not for other thoughts, that this life is
112 A VISION REALIZED
a discipline and a man's identity not closed or fin-
ished with his departure from earth, I should feel
truly despairing while the years fly so swiftly and
I see so little of life's plans accomplished. Pa-
tience, submission ; oh how much are they needed !
How hard are they to practice! How slowly are
they learned in true spirit!"
He was deeply grieved at the situation in the
parish where he had worked so hard and sacrificed
so much. ^^How far off," he says, ^^and yet how
near my poor parish seems to me, the w^ork I did
there, the people who compose it ; and it seems also
as if I must remain associated with it and still be
the guide and teacher and the builder up in that
primitive mountain land.
^^What is to become of if? What is to become
of the poor I have helped and whom I can help no
In the months spent at Wilmington his brush
was not idle. He painted a large landscape of an
old southern home surrounded by towering live
oaks and in the foreground a trellised scupernong
vine so common in that section. Also he made
many marine sketches, going as often as possible to
the ocean beach.
^^I have spent," he says, '^a night on the ocean
shore alone and stood on the roaring brink in the
dark, lonely, and feeling the pitiless mystery before
me like the fateful future into whose unfathomable
extent we peer, a dark infinitude knocking at our
hearts with rolling surf that crawls on as if to swal-
low us up and thunders of things strange and
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 1 1 3
This great sea with its ever varying moods, its
* things strange and unknowable," made a deep
impression on him and he began to paint a large
canvas, '^ After the Struggle, Peace."
Another seashore picture was painted, ^'Home-
ward from the Marshes," cattle coming up from
feeding in the marsh land in the evening light.
He left Wilmington the first of December, going
to Greensboro to continue portrait painting there.
He became in a way reconciled to the life he had to
lead and tried to see in what he had done all the
good possible and to comfort himself therewith.
In letters to his wife at this time he says :
''What I have done for this year past appears
indeed very little to the purpose, and yet perhaps
more real good has been done, more seed sown,
more of helping here and there which none other
could do as well or in the same way, than if Mr.
James had furnished me the money to sail off in
grand style with a flourish in the papers.
"I am sent here and there, sowing seed, exert-
ing some influence, and whether in future settled
or not if I have grace to labor faithfully there will
be fruit not to be ashamed of. Better men than
myself have been wanderers, St. Paul, and all the
apostles among them. Yet their lives certainly
were not lost. I am now settled in the belief that
this earthly life of mine may have to be passed in
humbly doing what men call "small work," jobs
like a journeyman carpenter, day work for day
wages ; not in the execution of vast designs of a far-
reaching character, lifting my name among the
world's great and daring spirits to be inscribed
114 A VISION REALIZED
upon the annals of fame and known in the front
rank of enterprise and achievement. I may have
the thoughts, but they must be to myself only; I
may have the boldness, but it must be carried like a
reserve strength for enduring hardship. It is
well then to look into the unbounded activity of a
life yonder. When a misgiving steals over me— as
it does— that I am making a practical failure of my
career, and I study the manifold windings an invis-
ible hand leads me, and the real divine object of
human life, the consummation after the eyes close
to the sun, I feel calmly reconciled and ready to do
any work faithfully which to-day this unseen
Power lays in my path, doing the same to-morrow,
and after to-morrow, just as a child would do in
trust, and then worry, anxiety, and fear and disap-
pointed hopes all vanish like shadowy specters of
night when the heavenly light breaks into the
gloom. I can then be reconciled to anything and
my eyes open to the untold blessings contained in
this very denial, and submission and peace calms
down the agitated deep of my soul. "
With the certainty that the work in Lenoir must
be given up and the struggle against fate abandoned
came a kind of relief and a looking forward to the
future with more hope and complacency.
''We have both of us,'' he writes his wife, ''fret-
ted ourselves too much in times past. We have dis-
quieted ourselves about what was still ahead and
sometimes things which never came to pass. All
this is wrong. It consumes strength, resolution,
and peace. We must do so no more. The rough
places must be gone over, the deep waters crossed,
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 115
the steps attained by labor and toil in the striving
for the bright land beyond. It is enough that the
end be glorious, though the race be hard and trying
and long, and God will increase our power if from
the heart we trust in Him. ' '
Feeling that he could never resume work in his
Lenoir parish, he at last resigned, December, 1874,
and the parish and school passed into the hands of
the Rev. C. T. Bland. He wrote regretting that he
could not be present at the last, and said to his wife
'^God bless you for your heroic exertions in my
former parish, and especially during my absence
and this last Christmas season." Being absent at
this time was particularly trying to him as during
the years he had charge of the parish Christmas
tide was made, as it should be, the great feast of the
year, and in all that was done he took an active part.
The little church was always most elaborately
dressed with evergreens; usually an ornamental
screen of his design was made with his own hands
for the front of the chancel, and all the young folks
gathered there in the evenings to help cover it with
spruce and laurel. There was the Christmas tree
to decorate and all the simple little presents for the
Sunday-school scholars to arrange. Then at the
old rectory all was bustle to prepare the feast of
good things to which all were invited, and on
Christmas eve the young folks went out and sang
carols from house to house.
All this came up in his mind as he spent this
Christmas away from his parish and his family and
among strangers and realized that it must now be
reckoned among the things of the past and that he
116 A VISION REALIZED
was no longer the pastor of his beloved people
whom he had served so faithfully.
To show what this Christmas time was to him
and his devoted wife is quoted a portion of a letter
written by her in 1884 to The Church Messenger,
published in Charlotte, N. C. Mrs. Oertel wrote for
this paper for some years under the name *'Lada."
^^Dear old Christmas! Hallowed feast! With
a magician's wand thou bringest out of the past the
*'I see a group of worshippers in a village
church on the far-away foot hills of the Blue Eidge
in the Old North State. It is Christmas Eve. I see
this group after the service stand talking around
the stove near the door, until, when the rector's
wife announces her determination to leave, not-
withstanding the effort made to prolong the conver-
sation, one of the girls seizes the bellrope and rings
out a merry peal upon the night air. I hear the
rector utter some chiding words, but they do not
have very much effect on the high spirits. I see the
rector and his wife go toward home. They are
astonished that the rectory parlor seems brilliantly
lighted, a cheerful fire upon the hearth, the lamps
burning, the room decorated with evergreens, and
everything— sofa, piano, tables, and chairs— piled
up with beautiful and useful things, while an illu-
minated shade over the lamp on the center table
greets them ^^Merrie Christmas." Not a soul is to
be seen ; all is silent save the cheery crackle of the
fire upon the hearth, and then they know that the
peal upon the church bell was to warn the fairies
who had wrought this transformation to flee. It is
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 1 1 7
Holy Innocents ' night. I see the same rectory blaz-
ing from one end to the other with lights and danc-
ing fires upon every hearth stone. The doors are
wide open and I see coming up the winding road
from the gate through pure white fresh-fallen snow
a long procession of old and young, rich and poor,
all in one happy band, coming from the enjoyment
of the Christmas Tree at the church and making
the snow-laden pines shiver to their very tops with
the volume of glad voices shouting the melodious
strains of * Wonderful Night.' I see good cheer
spread in abundance. I see, ah ! I can see no more
for the blinding tears."
As he was now no longer in charge of a parish
he began to work harder than ever with brush and
pencil, and besides the portraits on which he was
engaged made many designs for more important
work to be executed in the future to which he again
looked forward with hope and confidence.
He had made a design of ^^The Shadow of the
Eock" and writes he had ^^frequently tried to im-
prove the figure. Last night it came to me. How
my best things have always been a gift. ' '
He improved much in health and strength, no
doubt because the burden of the parish and school
had been lifted from his shoulders and he was at
the time making enough money to supply im-
mediate needs and had besides good prospects of
more remunerative work.
Of this he says: ^^And while the artists at the
North are reduced to the verge of want, I, strange
to contemplate, in a country without art and money,
am having orders ahead and a reasonable prospect
118 A VISION REALIZED
of being able to go forward on the laudable and
happy road of paying the debts of more disastrous
Several important designs were made at this
time, ^'Isaiah on Mount Horeb,'' of which he made
a finely finished and deep-toned drawing, and
^^Ezekiel,'' or '^The Vision of Dry Bones." This
was afterward painted and will be later described.
February 15, 1875, he received a call to the as-
sistant rectorship of the church at Wilmington, but
declined, *^for," he said, ''how can I pay my debts
if I go ? How can I follow art at all ? I am not a
free man to choose."
Most of the work on his important designs was
done at night, as the portrait painting consumed all
of the daylight. It was to him an irksome task,
with his mind so filled with children of his own crea-
tion which he so longed to produce ! He thus gives
vent to his feelings in a letter to his wife (Mar. 18,
1875) : ''I go in the 'painting room' and look with
horror at the row of stretchers gaping their backs
of canvas with my name on each at me as in ghastly
grin at the labor I, poor fellow, had to bestow on
their opposite sides. It reminds one, this wretched
sight, of the organ grinder you once saw in Tenth
Street, New York, one fearfully hot day, drawling
out dolefully the air 'Jordan is a hard road to
travel' and some lounging chap tosses him a penny.
What a pity that artists and clergymen have to eat
and drink and need money like other folks; that
they can not feed themselves and their families on
beauty and morals.
"If the business I am now engaged in wore out
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 1 19
only brushes they could easily be replaced; but I
have to be watchful it does not wear out my mind
much more and leave it in a blank condition. It is
not particularly enriched by the process."
Early in the spring (April) he went over in
** Stokes" county to paint horses, and while there
wrote he had held the first church service ever seen
or heard in that county.
In the latter part of April his daughter and
younger son left Lenoir for a visit to friends in the
State and, as his elder son was already away at
school, Mrs. Oertel was left alone and he planned
*^ Eight long weary months," he says to her,
'^ since I have had the light of your face. We have
tried to be doing good, and by Divine grace have,
1 believe, effected our desires; but it has been at
fearful expense to ourselves. I myself do not
reckon it, but we are now by His own hand broken
up and warned away from Lenoir, and since He has
thus set us in motion on this course and race for
freedom, I mean to keep on the run until I have
crossed the Mason and Dixon line."
He returned to Lenoir May 24, 1875, and moved
Ms furniture into the studio where he and his
wife lived for some time. He at once began to plan
for important art work and determined to risk
painting, '^The Shadow of the Rock," but the
general conditions and surroundings were not con-
ducive to the freedom of thought so necessary to
its successful execution. Though living in the
studio, he and his wife had to go to a neighbor's,
half a mile distant, for meals, which made a serious
break in his days. Then the separation from the
children, the scattered condition of his household,
and being forced to remain in his former field of
labor and see day by day his cherished work fade
away and die and be unable to raise a hand to save
it was hard to endure.
^*As for the parish," writes Mrs. Oertel, '*we
feel much like standing by the bedside of a dying
loved one and watching each breath grow fainter ;
disintegration and decay seems to be written over
Besides this, he had been out of the art world
for years and constantly drawing on his own mental
resources without opportunity for study or aid of
any kind whatever.
He felt this keenly and so feared to trust him-
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 121
self to go on with the large work in his present con-
dition that he made plans to go to New York and
paint it there.
This, however, he was forced to relinquish for
lack of funds, though about the same time he gave
$50 toward the support of the mission school and
paid over $1,300 on his debts.
It was no new thing for him to work under every
difficulty, so he began, June, 1875, to paint, as best
he might, ^^The Shadow of the Rock," 8 by 10 feet
in size, with the intention of sending it to the Cen-
tennial Exposition soon to be held in Philadelphia.
This is from the text :
*^ And a man shall be as a hiding place from the
wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of
water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock
in a weary land. " Isaiah 32 : 2.
On the left-hand side of the picture stretches
the awful waste of the desert. It lies under the
glaring noon-day sun, yellow, shimmering with in-
tense heat, stones strewn about, their keen edges
sharply defined beneath the fierce sunshine, and
along the distant horizon the death-dealing sand
storm is sweeping up with a terrible fury, a ^^ weary
On the other side of the picture, covering nearly
half of the canvas, there rises a rock so high that
the top is not seen. At the base, from a cleft in its
side, there gushes out a bubbling spring of bright
water. All around the rill formed b}^ the spring,
emerald green grass gemmed with flowers, olean-
ders in full bloom, with other shrubbery in luxuri-
ant profusion, cover the otherwise arid soil.
122 A VISION REALIZED
The shadow of the rock is thrown in the imme-
diate foreground by the meridian sun, and it
suggests the form of a cross.
Herein is contained the powerful teaching of
this design. In this shadow lies a youth, oriental in
face and garb. He has evidently, just at the last
moment of endurance, escaped from the blazing
sunshine and the oncoming wind and tempest; he
has cast himself at full length upon the living grass
and presses hands and cheek against the cold moist
rock, while his large dark eyes are lifted in unutter-
able thankfulness. At a distance away, upon the
sand, lies a figure that for some reason has failed to
reach the Eefuge, and one feels that destruction
must soon overtake him.
The one who has gained the shadow shows by
the expression of exhaustion in the whole figure, the
cut and bleeding feet, and parched lips, that his
race for life has been a severe one.
The parable is plain to imderstand. The desert
—this sinful world; the rock— Christ; the spring—
the living waters; the shadow— His full life-giving
salvation. On the one side— danger, destruction,
death; on the other side— rest, refreshment, safety,
life. ^^So run that ye may obtain," and ^^and that
Rock was Christ" are the legends on the frame.
It was for such art as this that Mr. Oertel fought
his whole life through, a hand-to-hand fight with
the materialism of the age.
Painting this picture exhausted all his re-
sources, but he felt it his duty as an American artist
to do something toward the showing of American
art in the great exhibition, and doubly so as a Chris-
UFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 123
tian artist to place a work there to testify to Gospel
For some days before it was sent to Phila-
delphia it was on exhibition at the studio and
almost everyone in the town and surrounding coun-
try came to see it. The people were so proud to
have such a work go to represent their town that
they insisted on paying the expense of sending it to
It was sent to the Exposition and attracted a
great deal of attention, though only 15 words of
explanation or description were allowed in the
It was shown in New York at the National
Academy exhibition in 1877. Mr. Oertel had an
understanding with the hanging committee about it
before it left Philadelphia, and they expressed
themselves glad to give it place. The place they
gave it was one where it could hardly be seen at all.
A critic, in an article on ^^ Christian Thought in the
National Academy" said: ^^In wandering through
the galleries of the Academy, with all the variety
of color and effect upon its walls, and the display
of technical ability, a thoughtful mind can not but
be struck with the meagerness of idea in the works
which our painters put before us. As the true end
and aim of art should be to instruct and teach, to
lift the soul from this earthly level to purer
heights of spiritual contemplation, to place before
the eye facts and ideals lofty and elevating in a
tangible form, one would expect to find a larger
recognition of this principle in the exhibition of the
National Academy ; but looking for this, and Chris-
124 A VISION REALIZED
tian thought especially, I find but few represen-
^^The most important work of the character,
No. 108, ^The Shadow of a Great Eock,' by J. A.
Oertel, to which the hanging committee have in-
deed proved themselves executioners, is hung in the
corridor above one of the large doors! * * * The
excellency of the rendering of details can not be
seen in its present position. It is only those who
saw the picture under more favorable circum-
stances at the Centennial who can know what they
are. * * * This picture is a sermon of powerful
Christian teaching. Can that be the reason it was
hung so near the sky?"
Another work which deserves mention was ex-
hibited at the same time: ''Elijah on Mount
Horeb." It is a powerful rendering of the grand
old prophet in his hour of deep depression and
almost despair, when he exclaimed (I Kings, 10) :
''And I, even I only am left, and they seek my
life to take it away."
Next was finished "After the Struggle, Peace,"
begun in Wilmington, and this also was sent to
New York for exhibition.
It is a grand and imposing picture. It trans-
fers you almost bodily to the lone low shore on
which the restless waters beat. You can almost
hear the roar and hiss and see the mad foam crawl
up to your feet. Darkness settles upon the deep,
and the light of the departing sun glows only in the
long-stretched army of the sky like a battlement of
glory, conducting the eye to the restful blue over-
head. But below there is commotion and strife and
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 125
the mystery of danger and suffering and death, for
there lies, just cast out, a piece of a wreck, and a
sealed bottle washed upon the sand— the tale of
some lost crew upon the mighty and treacherous
In this manner he proposed to teach more than
how the surf breaks upon a shallow beach, and make
it a poem of life, of death, and of eternity.
Again came up the question of how he should
attain his object of painting the ^^ series," and all
sorts of schemes were alternately discussed and
abandoned for the same reason— lack of funds.
He felt that Providence had so far restrained
him from the work, as he now felt ready both
in mental discipline and technical knowledge,
which he was not at the time the designs were
^^But now," he says ^Hhe time has come, if
ever," and Mrs. Oertel writes : ^^I would go to Cali-
fornia or the South Sea Islands, or any other cor-
ner of the world if I was convinced that by doing
so I should advance the possibility of this great
work. No sacrifice I could make should stand in
However, nothing could be done without money
and he again started out painting portraits, going
first to Raleigh, while Mrs. Oertel went to visit her
relatives in New York (May 22, 1876).
So at last Lenoir was left behind and the years
of struggle in the attempt to benefit and help his
people were now only a remembrance. The break-
ing away had been gradual, but because of this all
the harder. As he expressed it, *^It is in some
126 A VISION REALIZED
respects like the mercy shown the dog by his owner
when he cut off his tail by inches to save pain."
In Raleigh he was engaged on all kinds of work,
little of which was to his liking, and he vents his
feelings in letters to his wife. In May, 1876, he
^^An old chronic and periodical desire has again
seized me this spring, and at times I suffer terribly
from it, the more so because it seems as if I must
bear it in patience without much prospect of a cure.
It is that miserable art fever, and it comes on worse
with every attack because I am getting to be more
and more starved out; consequently I have less
power to resist. It shakes me from morning to
night and is a daily visitor— not an intermittant.
^^This last week I worked very hard, but it was
to purpose. Once a while, you know of old, there
comes to me such a fit of activity and then the labor
of two or three days is compressed into one."
July 16 he wrote from Raleigh to his wife :
^^And now let us see what my log book has
marked down for the past week. Speed, 12 knots
an hour; advanced well the picture of the ^Man in
the Boat'; painted in a day and a half a very fine
fruit piece for Mrs. Battle as a present, nearly fin-
ished a small fruit piece for myself. Dead calm
prevailing (as regards wind, for my speed is per
steam, you must know, not being able to use the sails
of pecuniary advantage by absence of breezes of
fortune). Weather murky, damp, and threaten-
ing; sky covered and preventing observations;
drifting with powerful undercurrent in an un-
known direction, afraid shoals near but can not see
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 127
them ; keep watch in top and fire signal guns once
in a while without response ; no use of rockets, as
air is too foggy and thick; hope to get sight of
something this week, but uncertain; have nearly
decided to alter course and steer westerly.
''An advertisement in the papers in flaming
capitals would certainly be the proper thing: 'The
greatest artist of all North Carolina in this city!
Extraordinary chance! Unparalleled advantage,
most wonderful bargains ! $75 a head for the most
striking and beautiful likeness done to the life.
Would deceive a man's own dog and run his wife
distracted. Now is your time, positively the only
and last chance; go at once and secure your for-
tune ; wake up to the magnificent opportunity and
save yourselves the pangs of everlasting regret,"
On August 4, 1876, he returned to Lenoir to
pack and ship some of his goods and take final leave,
"have another inch of the tail removed."
Prom here, on the 23rd, he writes Mrs. Oertel,
now at her old home in Madison, N. J. :
"The date of our silver wedding (minus the
silver) is September 4, and we ought to be together
on that date. We have had many ups and downs in
the last 25 years, and now we are back where we
started— without a home and beginning once more.
' ' The poor people of the parish came to say good
bye; they send love to you. I suppose many a
broken prayer goes up from these poor creatures
on our behalf. Alas! this stricken parish!"
September 1 (1876) he left for the North,
spending some time in Madison, and Glen Cove,
L. I., where he visited his friend. Rev. John C.
Middleton, then rector of St. Paul's Church.
On October 17 he took a studio in the T. M. C. A.
Building, New York City. Of this move he says :
^^What else can be done I am unable to see. All is
a subject for trust, and not for sight." He had
been seven years in the South, isolated from artistic
intercourse, and knowing of art life only by occa-
sional clippings from the newspapers sent him by
his friends at intervals. He soon realized that the
spirit and fashion of art had drifted farther than
ever away from him. He found some of the best
artists spending their strength on illustrations and
decorations which to his mind were trivial and un-
satisfying. His serious turn of thought, his ideas
of elevation in art, seemed all out of place. A few
of the old names were left, but only a few ; from
these he received a hearty welcome, but withal he
felt a stranger ; a stranger personally to the multi-
tude of new artists who had meanwhile arisen, a
stranger to the style, method, and aim of prevailing
Certainly this move was, as he said, one of trust
and not of sight. The first night in his new room
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 129
was without fire, though it was quite cold. He had
only a few of his things and slept on the floor, ^^ with
paint box for pillow and some light robes, used for
draping, for cover."
**It seems like a monstrous venture," he says,
*Ho go into such a room— and such expenses— with
$15 in one's pocket. I have felt for some days very
sober and anxious, but yesterday, coming down on
the cars, I asked the serious question whether if
$500 were in my pocket these despondent thoughts
would rule me ? Whether in that case it would not
be, after all, the money my heart trusted in to help
me through instead of the Great Banker in Heaven,
my almighty and ever-faithful God, and, conscience
stricken, I humbled myself and begged forgiveness
and grace and faith to trust implicitly always and
with a cheerful courage in whatever trial of pa-
tience and endurance might come."
And so he began this period of his career (1876)
which was to result only in fruitless effort— in dire
distress, poverty, and privation over which it is
best to pass.
It is not desired to weary the reader of these
pages by a rehearsal of all the trials, care, and dis-
appointment which fell to his lot; nevertheless,
in writing of a life which was for the most
part struggle and privation, much must be told;
at least such incidents as directly affected his
Many failures were due without doubt to his
own errors of judgment, though who can say
what the result would have been had the op-
posite course been followed? Most of such,
1 30 A VISION REALIZED
however, can be traced directly or indirectly to
the tenacity with which he clung to his ideal
and religious art.
For this was the sacrifice made, and even when
disposed to murmur at the hardships he was called
on to endure he had a sublime faith in Almighty
power and over the troubled waters of his soul came
the voice of his Master saying ^* Peace, be still" and
there was a great calm.
So as year succeeded year, each bringing to him
new trials and difficulties, each bearing him nearer
the end of life yet sternly withholding that for
which he strove, did this faith and trust bear him
up and give him strength to rise above each suc-
ceeding surge which swept over him and strike
out toward the calm water bevond with renewed
Nothing was accomplished in the New York
studio, and, after spending the winter there, early
in the spring (1877) he sought again the retirement
of a country home.
Attracted by the prospect of the society of val-
ued friends, he made his new home at Glen Cove,
L. I., and was soon by vote of the vestry offered a
complimentary position as assistant minister of St.
Paul's Church, which he accepted, glad to render
what assistance he could to his cherished friend, the
At this time the Stewart Memorial Cathedral at
Garden City, L. I., was being built, and Bishop Lit-
tle John proposed Mr. Oertel's name to the architect
as the proper man to make designs for the windows
and other artistic work. In this he was seconded
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 131
by Dr. Middleton, then warden of the cathedral
He became very enthusiastic over the prospect
and even made some designs, but Judge Henry Hil-
ton, who had charge of the whole matter for Mrs.
Stewart, refused to consent, putting a stop to any
He fitted up a sort of a studio in the carriage-
house of the property rented and began to paint.
Only two important works mark this period, ^^The
Holy Grail" and the reredos he erected in St.
Paul's Church **to the glory of God and as a testi-
mony of his heartfelt appreciation of the many
kindnesses and delicate attentions he had received
from the members of the congregation.'' The seed
thought of the painting of *^The Holy Grail" is
contained in the well-known stanza from Tenny-
son's ^^Sir Galahad."
"A gentle sound, an awful light,
Three angels bear the Holy Grail,
With folded feet, and stoles of white
On sleeping wings they sail.
blessed vision. Blood of God !
My spirit beats its mortal bars.
As down dark tides the glory rides
And starlight mingles with the stars."
But merely to give embodiment to the poetical
idea expressed in these lines would not satisfy our
artist. He never could give the image supplied by
the mind of another without draping it anew from
his own storehouse. So the picture stands com-
pleted, not the beauteous vision the poet laureate
brings before the knight, but as showing the sacra-
132 A VISION REALIZED
ment of the Holy Eucharist in the keeping of the
ministry of the Church,
The three angels who bear the Holy Grail are
clothed in the vestments of the altar service. The
central figure in the alb and chasuble of the cele-
brant, and representing the bishop, looks up with
a face full of rapt adoration at the Holy Burden
lifted high above their heads. To the right the
angel wears the surplice of the priest. He, too,
gazes upon the mystery he helps to bear, but with
more of anxious deference in the expression of his
coimtenance ; while the angel on the left side has the
dalmatic, or short surplice of the deacon, with the
stole crossed under the left arm. He assists with
one hand in bearing the Holy Grail but the other is
pressed upon his breast, and his gaze is downcast
and full of the deepest reverential awe.
The Cup is blood red upon a base of gold and
jewels. It emits seven rays; three from the top
symbolizing the Trinity, the four pointing down-
ward being the number of earth ; in all seven, the
seven spirits of God, and the number of heavenly
and spiritual perfection.
The three figures with their wings make a star-
like form and are lighted from the cup, which is
glowing with light and blood red. The background
is a dark, star-studded sky with fleecy clouds below.
This is a most remarkable picture and the lighting
such that it impresses one as if it might still be seen
if the room were darkened.
The reredos is a piece of exquisite carving fill-
ing the whole back of the chancel. The wood is
chestnut with an admixture of holly. It contains
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 1 33
five paintings in oil and some illuminations, the
whole telling the story of the Incarnation in a full
and comprehensive manner.
This work was all done during the year 1877 and
early part of 1878. During the rest of the year
nothing of importance was produced. He had
many pictures on hand for which there was no sale,
and he had not the heart to paint more. Poverty,
failure, and disappointment had worn him out, and
he was in a serious condition physically. His
brother. Dr. Oertel, advised a change and sug-
gested that he go south again. So on the 3rd of
May 1879, the thirty-first anniversary of his leav-
ing the Fatherland, he set sail with his wife and two
sons on one of the Old Dominion Line steamers
bound southward to North Carolina.
After some months spent in the old Lenoir stu-
dio and among his former parishioners who loved
him so much, his health improved rapidly and he
was eager for work; so it was at last determined
to make a final settlement at Morganton, 16 miles
from Lenoir, in an adjoining county.
Buying a few acres of land on a most command-
ing site, where an unrivalled panorama of moun-
tain view surrounded him, looking into seven or
eight counties, and comprising the grandest eleva-
tions this side of the Rocky Mountains, he again
made a studio home.
Here once more he cherished the hope of going
on to paint his great designs.
For a time he was rector of the parish church—
unwillingly, but consenting to the position because
he felt that duty called him ; but later he resigned
134 A VISION REALIZED
the rectorship and returned to art, believing that
his true mission was there and that he must preach
the glorious truths of the gospel by form rather
than words, being none the less a preacher by the
difference of the medium of communication to the
The first painting of note produced in this
studio was ^^The Good Shepherd. '^ This does not
represent the earthly human shepherd according
to the conventional idea, but assumes that what our
Lord did while walking on the earth He is con-
stantly doing and by the same means. He still goes
out into the darkness of this sinful world with the
love of God and the power of His Atonement to
seek and save that which is lost.
In this picture the act is presented as fuly com-
pleted. Leaving the dark world behind Him, and
with the meek and thankful burden upon His
shoulders. He has entered upon the golden confines
of Heaven as in triumph, exclaiming, ^^ Rejoice
with me, for I have found my sheep."
A crown of 12 stars— the foundation number of
the Church— with the Cross as their center, encir-
cles His Head, and the tricolored numbers symbol-
ize the Trinity, and His own Divinity. The royal
mantle is on His shoulders while the other robes are
merely the suggestive red of love and white of holi-
ness. In His hands and His feet the stigmata
declare of the death on the cross once for all suf-
fered for mankind, and His arms with the shep-
herd's staff— for He is ^*the Bishop and Shepherd
of our souls," and the chief Shepherd— form a
cross, the symbol forever of our redemption. This
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 1 35
is sought to represent a summary of all the truths
contained in the subject of ^'The Good Shepherd"
and bring to the mind in one glance the character
of the blessed Saviour and the accomplishment of
''The Ark Restored/' painted at this time, is
one of his best works. It is from the sixth chapter
of I Samuel, where the five Philistine lords watch
the kine drawing the ark as they take their way
down the hill toward Beth Shemesh. It is fine in
color and full of dramatic action. This picture
was placed with a dealer in New York and the
price set at $1,000. Soon after it went on Mr.
Oertel received a telegram from the dealer
asking if he would take $600 for it. As usual
he needed money and could not afford to pass
the offer, so he replied that he would. After ex-
penses for frame and commission were deducted he
The dealer would never tell to whom the picture
was sold and the artist always believed it brought
the full price and that the dealer pocketed the
balance. It is not known to this day who the
Another painting was made here which deserves
mention. This was painted for Mr. Barns, of New
Haven, Conn. The subject was the three women on
their way to the sepulcher on Easter morning.
They walk out full faced toward you, their eyes
tear stained and the soul of sadness upon their
brows. You feel that they walk in silence, saying
only ''Who will roll us away the stone?" Behind
them rises Calvary with the three empty crosses
136 A VISION REALIZED
outlined against the dawn and above that a cloud
all along the horizon, but over it an exquisite ex-
panse of sky palpitating with the dawning light,
and above the crosses flames the morning star—
telling that the stone is rolled away.
Mr. Hyde, during this year (1881), attempted
to make an arrangement with the Art Association
in Boston which would enable Mr. Oertel to go on
and paint the '^ Series," and for a time it seemed as
if his efforts would be successful.
Nearly 30 years had elapsed since the designs
were made, and always had he kept them in sight.
Mrs. Oertel writes (Sept. 19) ''When I look back
at his patience, at his faith in the future that God
would give him to execute these works, when I re-
member what inspirations they were, I feel as if the
time must come, and if it has not come now it does
begin to look hopeless." He also felt that surely
now the time had come and said that if the present
plan came to nothing he feared he would be ''a fail-
ure in art and have to worry out my life the best
However, when the plan of Mr. Hyde did fail
he did not despair, but set about devising a new
scheme to attain the desired end. His daughter
Lena had been teaching for some years in the Leake
and Watts Orphan House, New York City. His
elder son had cast his fortune with his and assisted
all he could, but still as they were now situated the
big works could not be attempted. So much was at
that time said and written of the possibilities of
easy living and making money in Florida that the
idea was evolved that here might be a chance to get
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 1 37
on a footing independent of art so he could be free
to carry out his plans.
He had some little correspondence with several
residents of the state and of course received every
encouragement to come and locate. In answer to
his inquiries in one locality he was told that the
business in which there was most immediate money
returns was lumber and that the growing of
oranges would soon bring a fortune. That was it ;
he would have a saw mill and an orange grove ; the
boys could run the mill and make the living while
the orange trees grew and he would be free to go
on with his artistic work. Accordingly, in the
spring of 1882 (Mar. 24), during the absence of his
elder son, he set out for the Promised Land, full of
hope and enthusiasm, taking with him his younger
son and dog ''Prince." As Mrs. Oertel wrote, it
surely was ''Innocents abroad." On his arrival in
Florida all was enthusiasm. The new and strange
country fascinated him. His artistic eye saw only
the beauty of moss-draped pines and gigantic live
oaks, of crystal springs and placid lakes. He be-
lieved all the stories told him of the wonderful
future of orange culture; one had only to plant
trees, watch them grow a few years, and then catch
the gold as it fell in showers from each bending
limb. His letters were all filled with glowing de-
scriptions of the beauty, healthfulness, and natural
advantages of the country. Alas ! he was soon to
learn that there was another side to life in the
Flowery Land; that the climate "so mild and
healthful to man" was also favorable to the exist-
ence of innumerable insect pests, and that it was a
138 A VISION REALIZED
far cry from the orange seed to the gold dollar ; also
that though figures are not supposed to lie they do
so when it comes to estimating the capacity and
profits of a saw mill.
However, he located at Orange Spring, Marion
County, where with his sons and Mr. C. M. Mc-
Dowell of Morganton he went into the lumber
business, purchased a saw mill, and broke ground
for an orange grove.
Before joining him in his new home Mrs. Oertel
went on to New York to visit her relatives and
attend to art business there.
May 1 she writes of an attempt to have some
works published. She went to see the head of the
Scribner house and showed him the works. ^^He
asked," she says, ^^are they copies of any of the
great names'?" I said ^^Oh, no; they are entirely
original. " " Well, ' ' he said ' ' if they were copies of
any of the great names, they might be made to go ;
but as originals they are worthless." *^What can
one do with such sentiment as that?" She also
adds: ^^The pictures in the Academy are hung by
the neck until they are dead. The large one, ^ After
the Struggle, Peace' is consigned to the ^Eumple-
kammer' of the concern, down in the cloak room
among a lot of flowers and trumpery, and *^The
Child Jesus" has a negro picture to right of it, a
negro stealing whiskey beneath it, and a gay thing
full of unrest to the left of it." On the above it is
useless to comment. The only wonder is that he
continued to work at all or had any heart to try to
bring his art before the public.
Mrs. Oertel left New York to join the family in
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 1 39
Orange Spring on June 16 (1882), going by
steamer to Jacksonville, river boat to Palatka,
railroad to Johnson's Station, and ^* Florida phae-
ton" (a two-wheeled cart) the remaining 6 miles.
Judging from her written description of this trip
her first impressions of the new land were anything
but favorable ; it is very humorous and interesting,
but lack of space forbids quoting here.
A hard and toilsome life she came to, one where
physical strength was needed above any other
asset ; this she had not, but courage and endurance
she had, and she bore the burden uncomplainingly
through all the long campaign which followed.
The saw mill was set up, logs hauled, and the
first timber cut was for the new studio which he
began to build at once w^hile still enthusiastic over
the country and the prospects. The boys helped
him get the heavy timbers in place, but except for
this the building was the work of his own hands.
Very little art work, however, was done. He re-
made the design for the ^^Dispensations of Promise
and the Law'' and considered that it was *^ vastly
improved"; also he recomposed ^^The Era of the
Holy Spirit. ' ' The original design— the 12 apostles
stepping down from the clouds in obedience to the
command '^go ye into all the world," etc., he made
only in the clouds, while below he placed a com-
position almost as extensive as the first one.
He also did considerable toward elaborating the
last of the ^ ' Series. ' '
During his stay in Orange Spring he held serv-
ices in the Methodist Church, which was seldom
used. Lena came down from New York in the fall
140 A VISION REALIZED
and helped in this with the music. A small organ
was carried over from the house every Sunday and
she played and sang the hynms. After Mr. Oertel
went North, his wife and daughter continued these
services for nine months. She says: ^^I wrote to
Dr. Weller, the principal clergyman of the diocese,
and asked him what he thought St. Paul would say
to it" (the reading of the service and sermon by a
woman). He replied, ^' Under the circimistances,
I think St. Paul would say, ^Sister, go on,' so on I
It soon became apparent that a permanent stay
here was out of the question. The business could
not be made to pay as was expected ; the boys
worked hard, but were dissatisfied and did not care
to remain ; the life was hard on his wife and indeed
hard on him. His health failed and his enthusiasm
ebbed to the vanishing point. He suffered intensely
from the numerous insect pests. Ticks, chiggers,
fleas, sand flies, gnats, and mosquitoes abounded,
and all seemed to have a special thirst for his blood.
He was in constant misery from their bites and
stings, and as his flesh was irritated so was his mind.
He said he ^^felt so humiliated, being a prey to
Mrs. Oertel wrote to ^^Edward" (March, 1883) :
^'He can not stay here. The insects make life per-
fectly unendurable for him.
^^ Imagine him before his easel, the gnats in his
eyes, the mosquitoes singing about his ears, the
fleas working next to his skin, the ants on his
palate— and meanwhile the roaches eating up his
books and pictures. ' ' And so, feeling that a further
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 141
stay in Florida was useless and that nothing could
be accomplished either in business or in art, he
returned north, leaving Orange Spring alone and
with a small trunk and his paint box only, April
The boys had already returned to North Caro-
lina, going up the coast in a boat built by themselves
from their own lumber.
Mrs. Oertel and Lena remained, as there was as
yet no other place to go, nor funds to go with. The
mill had been sold to some orange growers, but on
account of the failure of the orange crop that year
they were unable to pay for it. So once more his
family was thoroughly scattered and he cast adrift
to make what landing he might and begin the
Begin anew ! and in his sixtieth year !
What wonder that at first, though his aim was
still the same and resolve unshaken, that he felt
He went first to Washington, taking a studio
there in the Corcoran building, where he lived and
worked. His condition of mind at this time is best
expressed in his own words to his friend Edward
^^What of the Series I have for so long deter-
mined to execute at my own expense, scorning help
and the sacrificing of my own independence? It
now looms up to me as a foolish notion. The Fates
have knocked into flinders every scheme of mine
to achieve this independence in some other manner
unconnected with art. The last one, the Florida
dream, must go with the rest, and thus I am thrown
142 A VISION REALIZED
back into my old and wearisome experience, with a
despairing sort of feeling at the heart because,
every effort failing, there is only left the drudgery
of toiling for a precarious living by what is almost
hateful work and seems devoid of aim as it is kill-
ing of aspiration. And as to help— where is it to
come from and who is to give it ? Is there such an
ideal man living, the miracle of his age, whose soul
could be fired with a grand conception to sufficient
warmth and trust as to risk his money on an under-
taking subject to so many contingencies ? And sup-
pose such a man not altogether impossible, how can
so obscure an individual as myself, and who can
boast of neither influence nor active friends of the
mercenary kind, ever hope to become acquainted
Thus it was that he was again forced to resort
to painting portraits and ^^pot boilers," though he
managed, to produce quite a number of better works
during the same period, ^^The Seasons," using the
groups from ^^ Father Time and his Family";
^^ Footprints of the Storm," a large landscape from
studies made some years before in Venice Center,
N. T., after a tornado had swept over that part of
the country. ' ' The Walk to Gethsemane ' ' and then
two large canvases of the Four Evangelists for St.
John's Church, Georgetown, D. C. The sluggish
and laborious working that characterized his forced
efforts left him so soon as anything of this kind
was upon his easel; now it was bold and rapid.
^^Give me," he says, ^^a big canvas and a broad
manner of treatment, and I am perfectly at home.
It's this miserable consideration of texture, and
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 143
technicality for itself s sake, and diminutive canvas
—and perhaps equally diminutive subjects— that
dwarf my energies."
These pictures were painted for about what it
cost for material but that mattered not; they were
for the Church, it was the work he loved and for
which he was best fitted, and he did his utmost to
make them all they should be.
He also painted the symbols of the Four Evan-
gelists upon the walls of the church.
During this period he did considerable modeling
He modeled his design ''The School of the
Prophets" in figures 18 inches high and planned to
do the same with sections of the ' ' Big Series. ' ' But
here the balance wheel of his life (Mrs. Oertel)
came in and checked the speed he was gathering.
''It seems to me," she writes, "you would under-
take too great a task in modeling in ever so sketchy
a manner for the big pictures. I can see the ad-
vantage, but the time, man; where is it to come
It was thus in all he planned; he never con-
sidered the work involved. Did some church want
an altar or reredos and stipulate the sum they could
pay, he immediately made a design which to execute
would require work worth fifty times the amount.
It was easy for him to put it on paper ; the labor of
execution was never considered.
The church work done, though at no profit,
immediately whetted his appetite for more. He
believed in this line— decoration and painting for
churches— he might receive recognition.
144 A VISION REALIZED
^^So you see," he says, ^'I am in work for
churches above my shoulders— but not my eyes or
brain. Measuring these I could employ several
pairs of hands with profit."
He was now in the same position as he had been
so many times before. Of this he says :
^^Many years of experience only repeats itself
in my life, namely, plenty of hard work and very
slim compensation of the kind that would relieve
my family from care— and often want. Yet you
know I am in the position of starting anew in life,
and perhaps when my fourth score years begin I
shall have reached a development growing out of
the three that have gone before."
Efforts to make money by the sale of a lot of
small pictures resulted in failure and a bill for
auctioneer's expenses. *^But," he writes, ^Hhis
reestablishing is no mean battle, which deserves to
be fought to the end and my backbone is not broken
yet by a good deal. You know I can not be put
On November 3, 1883, he reached the ^Hhree
score" years of his life. A poem written him on
this date by his wife will not be inappropriate here.
So long ago, my love, this day I see
Life's golden ladder was let down for thee —
Round upon round it rose before thy feet,
Up, up, to where the clouds swift winged and fleet,
Hid with their deep impenetrable mystery
No earthly eye
Nor mortal lore,
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 145
Could pierce the shroud that wrapped the path to be,
Nor know, whether it led to death's dark night,
Or to that region of perpetual light,
Heaven's shining shore !
So far away from youth's keen eager gaze
This point thou hast attained, by devious ways.
The clouds mysterious, crimson gleamed and gold,
And visions fair lurked in them fold on fold :
Thy spirit's wing by power of genius nerved
Heaven's precious gifts
From boundless store,
Thy soul grasped after, and thy faith ne'er swerved;
Firm trod thy feet, thine eyes' clear upward glance
Caught glimpses through the rifts of blue expanse
All star gemmed o'er.
So many rounds, my love, thy feet have trod
Struggling and climbing nearer to thy God,
The clouds, so crimson hued to youth, would oft descend,
Wrap thee in gloom and direful woe portend ;
And evil birds of hell thy trembling soul
Thy voice could scarce
Mid lightnings flash, storms rush, and thunders roll
Bruised, beaten, baffled, and thy nerveless wing
Seemed for a time a shattered, helpless thing.
Powerful no more !
From this fair height, my love, look bravely down,
See how the storm clouds are beneath thee thrown ;
How at thy feet the fateful lightnings play.
While o'er thy head shines Heaven's resplendent day ;
Earth's woes, grim storms, Hell's hosts, man's hate, their worst
Have done !
These battles fought
Fear nothing more,
146 A VISION REALIZED
Immortal fountains wait to quench thy thirst;
If all the conflicts of the past have failed
In power to crush, go on with courage mailed,
The peril o'er.
Look up, my love, look up ; toward the sky
Stretches the golden ladder wide and high ;
Another score of steps each brighter growing
In lambent light, with heavenly music flowing,
And white-winged Helpers sent to cheer and guard
Thy way !
The shining rounds
Of precious ore
Lead on and upward to thy great reward;
On to the "Father's House," the "crystal sea,"
The land so fair where "many mansions" be.
Where years are counted not, nor sight grows dim,
And rings perpetually the seraph's hymn ;
Bathed in transcendent light, immortal truth.
Eternal beauty, and eternal youth.
The yearning soul with peace Divine be filled.
Each wish accomplished, all as God has willed ;
And thou canst Him adore
"Orange Spring, Florida, November 3, 1883.'
J. A. 0.
** Friend Duffield, in the specimen from him
among our rare letters quotes Emerson as saying,
^We should give each other what we make, the
artist his picture, the poet his poem. ' As on many
similar occasions you have brought me your pic-
ture, so now I bring you my poem— crude and
hasty, but as Mrs. Barnett wrote of Robert Brown-
ing, ^a pomegranate, which if cut deep down the
middle shows a heart within blood tinctured. ' This
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 147
is all I claim for it, and to it I add my love and
His yomagest son Eugene obtained a position in
the Navy Pay Office at Washington during this
year and came on and joined him, and on January
1, 1884, his wife also came back from Florida and
they took a house in Georgetown, D. C, and once
more had a place to call home.
They had not been able to collect their scattered
household goods ; part remained in Lenoir, part in
Morganton, and part still in Orange Spring. Mrs.
Oertel, in after years, often laughed at the remark
of the man who moved what they did have into the
Georgetown house. ^'D~ndst people I ever
moved,'' he said as he came up the steps with a big
frame; ^^aint got nuthing but books and pictures;
where be they goin' to sleep, and what be they goin'
to kivver with, I dimno. "
It was a problem, but it was met, as others had
been, by all kinds of makeshifts. Picture boxes
were converted into tables and bureaus and other
boxes did duty as chairs. At least part of the
family were again together.
Again struggle, disappointment, and privation
were too much for him and his health began to fail.
Mrs. Oertel writes a friend (Feb. 8, 1884) : ^^If
he could only go to New York so that his brother,
the doctor, could see him ; a little while out of this
house might do him good, but that means $20— and
a poor fellow has to die sometimes for want of
No doubt he would have died but for the help of
a friend, who was a friend indeed in many ways,
148 A VISION REALIZED
Capt. Thomas H. Looker, of Georgetown, then pay
director of the Navy.
Looking back on this time those interested can
never forget this noble friend, now passed to the
great beyond, and thus pay tribute to his memory.
The star in his crown earned by his kindness and
generosity to this one of God's servants will never
grow dim, and he has heard the Master's voice say-
ing, ^'In as much as ye have done it unto the least
of these. My brethren, ye have done it unto Me."
On March 22 he went on to his brother's in New
York for treatment, but although reduced to a
shadow he continued to paint. As he said of his
work there, it was "the picking up of inconsidered
trifles"; nevertheless and in spite of his rapidly
failing strength he made some fine things. Among
them was ''The Indian Scout," 10 by 16 inches,
painted for Mr. William Russell. A solitary Indian
scout in war paint on a white pony, arrived at the
banks of the stream just after a glowing sunset,
perceives the smoke of a campfire a little ways off.
He is bending low on his saddle bow with lance in
hand, peering savagely forward. His horse shows
the same spirit as its rider. Also ' ' The Poor Man's
Doorkeeper, ' ' a billy goat on the hard stone in front
of an humble dwelling.
The early part of April, while he was yet able
to be out and had strength enough to walk, he
attended an exhibition at the National Academy,
and of this he writes his wife :
''I saw nothing else but what previous years
have shown. All the striving is for technical
superiority. The same paucity of thought, lack of
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 149
invention, and want of intellectual and spiritual
elevation does evidently characterize this as well
as previous exhibitions, judging from what I read
*^The more need is there for an Elijah or John
in the wilderness, crying aloud for repentance from
dead works and belief in the Gospel that has power
to raise the dead. And as God has assuredly given
this mission to me, His priest servant, it is my duty
to strive with all my power to fulfill to the utmost
the work of an evangelist— and I shall be sustained
in that work."
On April 14 he had a relapse and was then con-
fined to the house. His brother wrote that he had
no hope of his recovery; yet he continued to do
some work, make plans for the future, and write
cheering letters to his wife.
By May 1 he was confined to his bed and there
seemed to be no hope he would rally.
It was then that his brother discontinued the
use of medicine and began treating him with cold
water applications. In a few days improvement
was noted and on May 8 the doctor wrote Mrs.
Oertel that he considered him out of danger.
His first letter in some days, written his wife on
this date, says: ^'A miracle has been wrought. I
have been snatched from the very jaws of death."
In a few days more we find him out buying
artist's material, and on the 20th he set out for
home and again took up the struggle. He returned
only a skeleton, with an insatiable appetite. As
soon as he came to meals he devoured with his eyes
all on the table and seemed to grudge each mouth-
150 A VISION REALIZED
fill eaten by the others. As he afterward said,
while eating one meal he was speculating on what
he was going to get the next.
His worn-out body had to be entirely rebuilt.
While in such a state it was impossible for him to
do anything requiring much physical or mental
effort; yet he must work, so he determined to paint
small pictures for small prices and paint them well,
and see if that would not be a temptation to the
public to buy.
This he continued to do for some time and found
a limited market. Even very rich people were con-
tent to take from him for a few dollars what should
have brought a hundred or more.
This kind of work was done only while he was
regaining his strength, but no less than 25 of these
small things were painted— '^ In a Big Storm '^
(horses), ''Through the Hammocks in Florida"
(cattle), and like subjects. Later he attempted
things more to his taste and made designs for ''The
Seven Sleepers" and "Charlemagne," both of
which were afterwards painted. He reproduced in
monochrome "The Four Evangelists" and painted
"Under the Holy Rood," which was presented to
the Theological Seminary, Nashotah, Wis. Soon
after Christmas (1884) he fell on the icy pavement
of the steep hillside on High Street, near his home,
and again fractured his right wrist. This put a
stop to art work of any kind for some time.
With all these discouragements, what wonder
that he seriously considered giving up art for a
time and taking a parish ? This, however, when it
came to the pinch, he could not bring himself to do,
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 151
though several places were open to him which would
assure a living for himself and family. Instead he
drifted into art work which was to take him a long
time to execute.
This was the designing, constructing, and carv-
ing of a reredos for St. Stephen's Church, Four-
teenth Street, Washington. With his wrist still
weak, he began work on this March 31, 1885, esti-
mating that he could finish it in three months, but
it consumed more than double that time. This was
not a gift, but only a nominal price was received.
Reredos for St. Stephens.
The idea embodied in this reredos is that of
the Church built upon the Apostles and Prophets,
Jesus Christ being the chief corner stone.
The Lord is represented over the altar by a
lamb carved in wood, nearly life size. It lies upon
a moimd of earth and around it the flames are
creeping up. It is in high relief, on gold ground.
There is a high pointed arch over the altar, on the
top of which is the cross, elaborate crockets on the
gable, and on either side, on pedestals, under hoods,
the Old Testament Symbols— The Paschal Lamb
on the cruciform spit, and the brazen serpent. On
one wing stand the figures of Isaiah and Jeremiah ;
on the other, Ezekiel and Daniel, painted on sepa-
rate canvases, figures about 4J feet high. All
across the top extends a panel. It is in three
pieces but makes a continuous picture 18 feet
long— the 12 apostles as ^^ seated on 12 thrones.''
Then on the top are four angelic figures carved
152 A VISION REALIZED
in the round with spread wings, these over
3 feet high.
So prophet, apostle, and angelic hosts are repre-
sented, with the ^'Lamb that was slain" in the
Around the altar is a wide carving— wheat and
grapes in front, holly on one side, morning glory
on the other, emblems of sacrifice and resurrection.
An arch in front is supported by the symbols of
the Four Evangelists carved in the round. The
Alpha and Omega are also introduced and the
words incised ^^I am the Bread of Life" with the
Holy, Holy, Holy on the Eetable.
On July 15, 1885, he was informed by letter
that he had been elected assistant minister of
the Parish of the Incarnation, which position
Though there is no record of the exact date, the
*' Shadow of the Eock" was presented to the Uni-
versity of the South during the fall.
Early in 1886 Mr. Hyde wrote, suggesting that
his friend come to Boston. He believed he had a
scheme which would enable him to go on and paint
his great designs.
Some of his friends also suggested his removal
to Sewanee, Tenn., that being church headquarters
for 14 dioceses.
It was plain his object could not be attained by
remaining in Washington. Where should it be
next? For many reasons the latter course was
In a letter to Mr. Hyde (Jan. 25, 1886), Mrs.
Oertel reviews the situation very completely.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 153
"2065 High Street, Georgetown, D. C,
January 25, 1886.
"My Dear Edward:
"Your two letters head the mail income for the week. Thank
you for your kind, unselfish efforts.
"It does not seem as if Mr. Oertel could go to Boston unless
perchance — or rather providentially, for there is no ^chance' —
there should be some solid reason for his going. Of course, if
your scheme should succeed, he would do his part faithfully;
but I must tell you as the truth that he has no faith in it.
"The long years since you were with him, 17 or 18, have
been full of painful disappointments and he is no more the
enthusiast you knew. Not that his art enthusiasm is in any
way cooled — oh, no — but his enthusiastic expectations from the
Church or the world in the furtherance of his great designs are
pretty well killed out. He can give away as much work as he
pleases, it is gratefully accepted; but when a living income is
expected from it, then it is quite a different matter.
"For instance, you find a reredos in St. James' Church,
Lenoir, N". C, of which he was rector; this was a gift. Then
in the church at Rock Hill, S. C, you will find an elaborate
credence table, 6 feet high, also a gift. Then in St. Paul's,
Glen Cove, L. I., a large reredos — 14 feet high, 13 wide, con-
taining four paintings, and much elaborate carving — this, too,
a gift. Then in St. John's Church, Georgetown, three panels
14 feet high; for this the brotherhood of the church paid for
the materials and paid the artist $50 ; and so on down the line.
"Now, dear brother, you see in all these years Mr. Oertel
has come in close contact with many in high places, and it has
needed no mediating friend to make his claims known either to
ecclesiastical or moneyed influences. Dr. Morgan Dix, the cham-
pion of Christian art in the church, has known him for 30 years.
Bishop Littlejohn knows him intimately; he has also been for
years the so called intimate friend of William Fogg, for a long
time President of the Union League; also of Heniy E. Russell,
a very wealthy man, friend and neighbor of the Vanderbilts, etc.
^'The outcome of all is that his best friends in most cases
buy his pictures, under pressure, at low prices, and the church
will taTce what he can give. The Centennial picture is the prop-
erty of the ^University of the South', at Sewanee, Tenn., where
(D. V.) we are going — a gift to them.
"This is the way the dear man has gone through the world,
154 A VISION REALIZED
giving on all sides, his ministry a voluntary one, only accepting
a small remuneration now and then where absolute necessity
made it imperative.
"Mr. Oertel has given much time to the study of architecture
and used to be styled ''diocesan architect' when in North Carolina ;
has built or remodeled about a dozen churches in that state —
this, too, all a gift. His is a curious life, Edward, a story of
self-sacrificing endeavor which is not often told.
"It is hard to rouse him to any belief that his efforts will
ever be recognized by men in high station, either in a Christian
or a monetary point of view. Nothing but the existing fact
would make him believe it.
"Don't be discouraged because I take the matter as I do.
I must tell you the truth as it is. I think if Mr. Oertel saw
any indications of real sympathetic help he would gladly avail
himself of it; if it came to him as money speculation I do not
believe he could be moved to any action in it.
"I think, dear Edward, that it is the Lord's hand which has
been ever in the way — why I can not see — or, I ask myself, is
it the Devil who sees that in defeating the performance of this
work he is making a great stroke of policy in his own interests ?
I confess to much bewilderment on the subject.
"It is not for us to choose our way, it must be His way; 'at
evening time it will be light.'
"God bless you for your faithful love and remembrance.
Don't be too much disappointed if your plans fail again, but
be satisfied with His overruling. We might make mistakes-
He can not.
"Now God be with you.
"Yours, as always, Julia A. Oertel."
FIGURE OF CHRIST
Christ Church, Dayton, Ohio
On February 25 he again left for the South and
after a few weeks spent with his son Frederick at
Morganton, N. C, went on to Sewanee, Tenn.,
Here arrangements were made for the building
of a house with studio on ' ' Morgan 's Steep, ' ' a most
beautiful situation on the cliff overlooking the
valley 2,000 feet below, and he was very enthu-
siastic over the prospect.
Soon after his arrival he began work on a rere-
dos and altar for the Church of the Incarnation
at Washington which occupied most of his time
for over a year. This is 23 feet high and 20 feet
wide, very elaborate in construction and richly
carved. It contains six paintings. In the center
and above is Christ as the High Priest, painted in
color. On either side are inserted in carved frames
monochromes of the Nativity and the Crucifixion,
and below these, almost life-size and also in color,
are the Four Evangelists, two on a canvas. This
was not entirely completed until the spring of 1888.
One of his best works was done here. A colossal
figure of ^^The Christ" for Christ Church, Dayton,
Ohio. It is placed above the font and stands in an
attitude of blessing. This has by some been pro-
noimced the greatest figure of Christ ever painted.
156 A VISION REALIZED
A picture was painted called ^^ Peace on Earth"
for Clifford A. Lanier, brother of the poet, in
response to the following request :
"Please catch from the Invisible some shape of spirit, and,
enmeshed on canvas, embody his fonn for me that I may have
a memorial of you. Yours, sincerely, Clifford A. Lanier."
After a visit to his studio in September (1886)
Mr. Lanier wrote for a Nashville paper the follow-
ing article :
'^The aktist Oertel."
a visit to his studio.
"It is not possible to reproduce the gracious ease and cultured
simplicity of Johannes Oertel, painter of 'The Eock of Ages',
*The Shadow of a Great Rock in a Weary Land', 'The Climber's
Vision', 'The History of the Redemption', 'Prophecy', 'Dispen-
sations of Promise and the Law.' Light gray eyes burn with
the steady fire of vivid intellectuality. His garments idealize
the prosaic garb of this century; his gestures betray a subtle
mixture of strength with delicacy of touch. A long beard of
soft gray-black completes the charm of a manly and dignified
presence. In our visit to him he alludes to the want of space
in his crowded atalier, and shows with pride the drawings of
the new picturesque cottage which is now building for him on
the brow of 'Morgan's Steep.' He arranges chairs for his guests
(one of the chairs is the product of his own skill in joinery),
talking the while. A gleam of humor illumines his face as he
parries a deft compliment from Mrs. T. Protesting with a
gentle earnestness against the blindness of the many, mourn-
fully recognizing that they are few who see the 'beauty of holi-
ness' or love the 'holiness of beauty,' talking quietly of his own
work, vehemently of God's; gesticulating rather with the arms
of the spirit than of the body, criticising and praising a brother
artist as a brother. Oertel preaches us a lovely sermon on the
dignity and divinity of humanity; for this artist, painter,
sculptor, musician, carpenter, is above all a preacher. Every-
where you see the results of sin's warfare against the soul sym-
bolized. This Bunyan of painters shows the historic progress
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 1 57
of man from the birthdawn of Eden through the ages, assailed
at every epoch, fighting, fainting, triumphing, warned by proph-
ecy, cheered by promise, soothed by love, soiled by sin, led to
battle by the might of captains, taught by the majesty of wise
lawgivers, scourged by selfish heroes, harried by the demons of
greed, wrestling with Apolyon— on, on through the ages, on till
the devout imagination must climb the ladder of patient con-
secrated effort and strain the faintly illuminated eyes to get a
glimpse of the bright morning light, flashing radiance yonder
from the future as each to-morrow's sun flashes and shall flash
a pure white glory of day athwart this mountain's brow. A de-
sign of this picture, The Dispensations,' which is so far-reaching
and so crowded with forms that it should be called the spiritual
history of man from the creation, and the destiny of mans soul,
was once hung in an American gallery and the newspaper critic
chronicled that there was nothing that season worthy of his
condescension to criticize.
"Oertel will not fight under the infidel banner of 'Art for
Art's sake'; immoral, unmoral, unspiritual, helpless, faithless
art is the Saracen against whom his sword of the cross is drawn.
^'He says that one of his unfailing impulses is^ 'Would you
know whether you can do anything or not? Do it!'
"Passing from the brush to the sculptor's model, then to his
musical instrument, and thence to his turning lathe and car-
penter's bench, whence his books wooed him to study— always
busy with fair imagination, he is defended against fatigue. No
garrulous complaints escape him; he mournfully recognizes that
a devout love of art belongs to the minority. It is said that
those who know how to make commercial copies of the well-
known picture 'The Eock of Ages' have made a large sum of
money by their sale while he has received nothing. Of this he
did not speak.
"A dry catalogue of the teeming conceptions of this artist
is a label tagged upon the spirit. Here is surely a soul faring
through the world with religion in one hand and beauty in the
other. He is a painter of human figures. He is gazing into
futurity from the height of the eyes of a man and seeks to
climb the spiritual ladder as high as a man may go.
"In smiling protest he had exclaimed what a victim he would
be did he attempt in so brief a time to set forth the work of
a life. Now lest the perfect mirror of gracious courtesy may
be blurred he walks down the winding path, chatting of the
158 A VISION REALIZED
natural beauty of the place, of the way to find it, of the young
people, of the particular suggestiveness to the lover of natural
beauty of some of these prospects, of his new house now building
and its domestic appanages, of us and our whereabouts, till
the gate of exit swings against his interesting figure. Sincere
courtesies wave ^good afternoon,' and thus ends the lovely scene
(one scene of a reverent artistic Passion Play) of a half hour
with Johannes A. Oertel.
"Clifford A. L.
''Sewanee, Tenn., September, 1886."
So passed the first year of his residence in
Sewanee. Little time had been given to the con-
sideration of new designs; it was all spent in the
hard toil of carving and carpenter work— done
because it was necessary to meet the expenses of his
family. His daughter's health had failed and she
had come to live with him, hoping that the moun-
tain air might be of benefit ; but on the contrary the
climate and electrical conditions in that high alti-
tude depressed her greatly, and this was the main
reason why he later gave up his home there.
When making the woodwork for various
churches he was often urged to employ some good
carpenter to do the heavy joining but seldom did
so. He followed no set course and could not tell
another exactly what he wanted done. He had a
design to go by, yes; but there was no certainty
that he would follow it to the letter ; perhaps when
he came to make a certain part he would wish to
change and improve it ; he must be left free to work
it out his own way.
One of his former pupils once wrote him
requesting instruction in flesh painting and asked
him to paint several heads in progression to show
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 1 59
the process used. His reply was : ^^I can not do it.
It is like asking me to paint my soul. I paint flesh
as I feel it at the time, sometimes in one painting,
sometimes in several." Here is shown the same
freedom from any rule, his own or another's, that
characterized all his work.
In February, 1887, his friend Rev. Dr. Beckett,
principal of the female seminary at Columbia,
Tenn., was taken ill and requested him to come
and fill his place for a time. To this call he imme-
diately responded, taking charge of the ministerial
work in parish and school.
He practically gave up art work during this
time, doing only a few smaller things as he was
*^ continually lecturing and speaking." He took a
great interest in the work at Columbia, and, when
Dr. Beckett at last returned and relieved him, left
with regret. He seems to have found there many
congenial friends and on leaving, April 27, wrote
his wife :
^^My stay here has been a remarkable episode
with a great deal to impress it on my mind and
that of those with whom I have been associated."
From Columbia he went to Nashville, having
commission for some animal pictures there, and for
a time occupied part of the studio of Mr. Chambers,
a Nashville artist. He was much pleased with his
reception, and writes : ' ' People here wonder that a
man of my ability should be poor ; and I wonder
myself. To be sure, I may not sacrifice principle
to any degree ; but plain duty on one side can never
conflict with principle on the other."
** Just now," he goes on, *^my sheep pictures are
160 A VISION REALIZED
touching a certain public; sheep are harmless
things and remind me of the sheep in Christ's flock.
I will then regard them as symbols and fancy my-
self painting disguised religious allegorical pic-
tures." While in Mr. Chamber's studio they
painted a picture together, called ^'Evensong," a
girl driving home a flock of sheep in dim evening
light. He painted figure and animals ; Mr. Cham-
bers the landscape.
This seems to be the only instance in his career
when such a thing was done except that by request
of George Innis he several times painted figures
and animals in the landscapes of that artist.
Leaving Nashville early in May he returned to
Sewanee and resumed work on the Incarnation
reredos, which was completed by fall.
On account of his daughter's health and other
causes he determined to leave the mountain, and
the last of September moved to Nashville.
On October 30 he went on to Washington and
put up the reredos and altar in the Church of the
Incarnation. There it stands to-day, and except
by the few who attend the church is never seen.
Visitors and sightseers by the thousands come to
Washington every year, yet few, if any, ever see
this remarkable piece of work, remarkable in
design and execution and still more so for having
all been made by the one man. Design, carpenter
work, carving and painting all done by the same
master hand. If this was in Europe, tourists would
travel miles to see it and wonder at it. Here it is
almost buried. Why is this?
The record shows that for this work—which
REREDOS AND ALTAR
Church of the Ineai-natiuu. Washington. I). C
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEU D.D. 161
took over a year— he was paid the princely sum of
$700. For this the purchaser can not be blamed.
He was offered a certain sum and as usual counted
not his own labor but gave it freely in the cause for
which he worked.
Eeturning to Nashville he for a time took charge
of the department of wood carving, modeling, and
figure composition in the art school there.
With the year 1889 came affliction. Early in
January (4th) his beloved daughter passed away
and on the 20th of the same month the wife of his
son Frederick, then living at Washington, D. C,
was also taken.
His home being thus broken up his son gave up
his position in Washington and came to live with
him, and from that date until his death their lots
were cast together.
Then was put to the test a scheme which had
been often discussed, the manufacture of church
furniture as a business. It was thought that if the
clergy of the Church knew of him and his work
they would give him the preference in any con-
templated church decoration, either painting or
carving. Circulars were sent out to the clergy
informing them that he was prepared, with the
assistance of his son, to design and execute rere-
doses, altars, fonts, etc., and it was hoped by this
means a trade could be built up which would insure
a living and he would be enabled to go on with the
Quite a number of requests for such things had
already been received, and these were made as
rapidly as possible, an altar and font for a church
162 A VISION REALIZED
in South Pittsburg, Tenn., in oak; a communion
table and pulpit in cherry for the Western Metho-
dist Church in Nashville, and a large reredos for St.
Luke's Church in Jackson, Tenn.
While the latter work was in progress he
accepted a call from Halsey C. Ives, afterward
art commissioner for the Chicago fair, to take the
position of instructor in art at the school of Wash-
ington University in St. Louis, and in the fall of
that year removed to St. Louis and assumed his
The reredos for Jackson was completed in St.
Louis, and as there had been no response to the
request for work of that character no more was
Only a few important paintings were the result
of this year's work, most of it being taken up with
carving. The principal ones were *^ Victorious,"
an Indian who had just killed a grizzly bear—
which had fallen across his dead horse— shouting in
triumph to his companions who are coming up in
the distance. This was painted in monochrome and
a drawing was made. It was afterward published
*^The Sands of Dee" from the poem of that
name by Charles Kingsley. This was a striking
picture, a Scotch lassie coming up the shore ^'call-
ing the cattle home," the ^^ creeping tide" coming
in, bringing with it bits of seaweed, and over the
waves the '^ blinding mist came pouring down and
^hid the land.' " This picture was sold some
years later to Wood & Co., publishers, of New
York; and ^*A Eoyal Pair," lion and lioness.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 163
which became the property of Gen. G. P. Thruston,
During his stay in St. Louis his time was occu-
pied mainly in teaching, and only two large works
were produced: ^^ Christ known by His Breaking
of Bread at Emmaus," a canvas 4 feet 6 inches by
6 feet 10 inches, painted for the Eev. W. F. Brand,
S.T.D., Emmorton, Md., to go as a memorial into
the chancel of his church, and ^^EzekiePs Vision of
Restored Israel," from Ezekiel 37: 9-10.
This is one of his best compositions. It has
never been exhibited, and remains the property of
his sons. It is 50 by 70 inches. It was afterward
repainted, but will be described here.
It represents the '^Valley of Dry Bones." The
figure of the prophet occupies the center of the
picture and around him rise up those into whom
had come the breath of life in obedience to his
words, ^^an exceeding great army." Some in half-
dazed wonder are just rising, many are already on
their feet and joyously awaiting their loved ones;
husband is joined to wife, mother to child, and
many gaze rapturously upward to the flood of light
which streams from heaven over all.
The only bit of color is in the draping of the
prophet. From the rock on which he stands a
stream of water flows, and reflected in its surface
is what flames in the sky above— the Cross, this
teaching that it is by this sign that Israel is to be
The figure of the prophet above is draped ; all
else is flesh painting, yet the figures stand out as if
they might walk from the canvas. Even a person
164 A VISION REALIZED
knowing nothing of art may realize the technical
difiSculty of painting so many nude figures close
together and producing this effect.
Toward the last of his second year of teaching
he felt the strain of it and the lack of the freedom
for independent work. He must have expressed
his feelings in writing to his wife, then in New
York, showing that his spirits were at a low ebb,
and as was always the case at such times she came
to the rescue, writing :
** April 16. Do not let the Devil succeed in the
overthrow he strives for ; go on and do your best ;
he has not been able to keep you from making a
noble record for the right, with all his malice and
opposition. I think that instead he has driven you
to put the works in God's House, which will ever
witness for Him, that you would never have made
had you achieved worldly success ; and may be they
preach quite as forcibly as anything else you could
Mr. Oertel's engagement in St. Louis ter-
minated in the fall of 1981 (September) and he
again came East, this time locating with his son
Frederick in Vienna, Fairfax County, Va., a
small village about 12 miles from the national
For a time he used one of the small rooms in
the house (12 by 14) for a studio; here he painted
only one picture of importance ''The Prophecy of
Balaam," but made an elaborate carved baptistry
for the Church of the Incarnation in Washington.
The room was much too small to admit of putting
such a large thing together, and it was made in
sections and never set up until put in its place in
the church. In speaking of the difficulties he had
he said: ''I certainly am doomed again to build a
cathedral in a closet." However, it was accom-
plished as such things always were, no matter what
the difficulty, by patient work and, as he said,
''various contrivances which I adopt as I need
This work has much elaborate carving, includ-
ing four figures 3 feet high cut in the round. There
is one painting showing the Ark upon the waters,
with the dove bearing the olive branch, and the
rainbow in the clouds, typifying the cleansing by
166 A VISION REALIZED
water of the baptized as the earth was cleansed at
In the spring of 1892 (March 7) he took a studio
in Washington (Seventeenth and G Streets N. W.) ,
and it was of great benefit to him to be in touch
with his artist friends, especially Mr. Richard N.
Brooke, Mr. J. H. Moser, and Mr. J. A. Messer. He
was elected president of the Society of Washington
artists at this time.
As his first work in this studio he painted in
monochrome the four prophets— Isaiah, Jeremiah,
Ezekiel, and Daniel— for Rev. Dr. Brand, Emmor-
He speaks of having a visit from ^'Dr. Audsley,
of New York," and goes on to say : ^'He (Dr. A.)
says my room is a revelation, etc., showing versatil-
ity he had seen in no other artist— and adaptability
that seems able to do anything, to be equally power-
ful in every branch (and I mentally ask Why not"?)
so he did not know which I could do best, etc.— and
all that. Now I have heard things of the sort be-
fore, they are very assuring, and keep up my spunk
but do not alter the hard facts of the position. It is
true aU the same that I am poor, obscure, that the
public do not buy my pictures nor seem to care for
them, and the best of my years have gone in
vain effort to make more than a bare living.
And still there may be a duty remaining— that
of continuing the battle; *I aint dead yet' you
know. My trouble is too much to do, too much
willingness to do it, too much resolution, and
too little time and strength. And again, no means
for adopting such plans as are recommended
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 167
for coming out before the people and compelling
Then followed quite a number of works: ''The
King of Truth," ''The Morning Sacrifice," "The
Supper at Emmaus," life size, for Dr. Brand;
"The Good Shepherd," for Church of Incarnation,
Washington; "Going on Picket," winter scene
before Fredericksburg; "Pursued," army train
with guard; and "Charlemagne." This latter is
2 feet 8 inches by 3 feet 4 inches in size, from the
well-known legend of Charlemagne asleep under
the Odenberg, ready to arise and do battle when
the day of Armageddon arrives.
The grand figure of the old king lies asleep in
a great carved chair, his crown upon his head and
the trusty two-handed sword between his knees,
supported by his left hand. His robe is cast loosely
about his shoulders and the flowing white beard
sweeps nearly to his waist, a grand and imposing
figure, in perfect repose yet with latent power. At
his feet lies his cross-blazoned shield, on either
side a crouching lion (emblematic of power). The
figure on the side of the carved chair has trumpet
in hand ready to sound the alarm, and from
above comes a hand to turn the hourglass stand-
ing on top of the chair, showing that the time is
Early in 1893 his friend Eev. Dr. Brand was
taken sick and requested him to come over to
Emmorton, 2^ miles from Bel Air, Md., on Sun-
days and hold services for him. This he did for
some weeks, but in the meantime he had accepted a
commission to paint some large pictures for St.
168 A VISION REALIZED
Mary's E. C. Church, Washington, to be completed
by a certain date, and it consumed too much of his
time to make the trip each week, so he determined
to do the work there.
Consequently the last of July found him located
at Bel Air, Md., where he was given the use of a
room in the courthouse for a studio, and on August
5 he began the big pictures; September 15 the
three large ones, each 5 feet 9 inches by 11 feet
3 inches, were completed. While painting these
''I must, for want of time, pull up alongside of
the 'old masters' in point of rapidity of execution,
and probably the paintings do not suffer in the
process. Keeping at white heat is often an advan-
tage, while deliberate slow performance degen-
erates often into mechanical finish.
And on September 15 : ''I have finished the pic-
tures. I labored imder formidable obstacles ; not
the least of these was the poisonous green of the
jury room in the Court House, done in oil, that be-
ing the only place in town affording light enough,
although only about ten ( !) feet distance from over
lif esize figures. However, 1 struggled through and
came out victor, not the first experience of the char-
acter I have had to make."
The subjects are all different aspects and stages
of the Incarnation ; the center, that of the Madonna,
the ancient ''Theotokos", simple in treatment,
above 7 feet high; to the left, the Judgment of the
1 70 A VISION REALIZED
Serpent in Eden (Gen. Ill, 14, 15) ; to the right
the Vision of Isaiah when sent to King Ahas, Isaiah
VII, 13, 14. Besides these there are four paintings
5 by 6 feet in monochrome decorative panels ; sub-
jects, ^^The Annunciation,'' ^^ Nativity," ^* Presen-
tation of Jesus in the Temple," and ^'Finding of
Our Lord by His parents."
To E. L. H. he writes: ^^You are right in being
indignant that my own communion does not keep
my brush sufficiently employed, but, my friend, it
is the old experience, '^a prophet is not without
honor," etc. Moreover, you know that I have not
the gift of advertising myself and wares, and who
can succeed nowadays in a temporal sense without
that? Let the bubble ^'reputation" float along.
There are plenty chasing the glittering nothing and
I will not swell the silly crowd. The good Lord has
kept me and fed me these 70 years and will so keep
me the years that remain. I do the work that comes
to me, in serious honesty, and leave the result in
His gracious hands."
After finishing the four monochromes, Novem-
ber 18, no more important work was done that year
except the completion of an altar, begun during the
summer, for St. Peter's Church, Fernandina, Fla.
Still being needed in the Church work at Em-
morton, he remained in Bel Air and little by little
seemed to take root.
His wife and son pressed him to return to the
Vienna home, but he was obdurate and refused,
insisting that his work was there while in Vienna
there was nothing for him either in the church or
art. Mrs. Oertel held out against his remaining
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 1 71
and would not consent to leave her son and Ms two
children and join him as he wished.
In spite of all this he remained, and not only
that, but built a small studio and settled down to
work. This is the only instance in his life where he
absolutely refused to listen to counsel either from
his wife or son. In one of her letters to him Mrs.
Oertel said: ''I consider your call to Bel Air a
His first work in 1894 was four paintings for the
Emmorton church, each 3 by 7 feet— ''The Sacrifice
of Abel," ''Melchizedek Blessing Abraham,"
''David Playing before Saul," and "Moses Strik-
ing the Rock."
Then followed many smaller works, the princi-
pal ones "Successors to Royalty," lions, and
' ' Sunny Pathways. ' '
He was as eager for work as a boy when the new
studio was completed, and determined to paint
again for exhibition in New York. Of this he says :
"But he who enters that city for competition
has a murderous fight before him. The Vestals in
Gerome's 'Gladiator' represent the heartless spirit
of the 'judges' in those exhibitions. Their thumbs
are all downward and they cry for blood.
"Grave doubts assail me. The question rises
like a warning ghost before me, whether after all
and in spite of my very youthful resolution to con-
quer again a standing professionally, I am not
hopelessly superannuated and such a result beyond
my power and the possibilities of the case"? Even
a Bismarck is laid on the shelf and a Gladstone
compelled to resign, and perhaps the task I had set
1 72 A VISION REALIZED
myself is more difficult to achieve than theirs who
have continued in the mid-channel of prosperity
and public acknowledgment while I emerge as an
old man from obscurity into a race that is rushing
into opposite pursuits.
^^This race will not even permit me to bear any
testimony. I can get no hearing in the market place
and am pushed back within the church doors.
Therefore it may be that the experience has the
meaning, dimly hinted, that inside the church doors
I shall remain.
^* All the work I have had of late has been for the
Church. God can send more. I have no knack at
advertising myself, can't do it, but must quietly
wait and hope.
^^ Perhaps other men also have to go from the
stage of life here leaving what they considered their
main work unfinished— hardly begun. With me it
is plainly the case. What had not entered into the
original plan had to be done, and what was the chief
aim remains a fragment only. Evidently the pres-
ent generation has grown away from me and I from
it, and we no longer fit together. This is painfully
apparent and perhaps the part of wisdom would be
to submit and retire within the narrow circle where
still there is affinity and some chance for use-
^^ These conflicling suggestions run through my
head and they do not tend to steady my energies.
Very possibly no avenue of escape to freer action
can be discovered, and whether I give up the battle
against odds or with set teeth go on with the strug-
gle, I shall have to yield so much to circumstances
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 1 73
as to secure a living by whatever can be picked up
along the way."
When the pictures for the Emmorton church
were completed he wrote his wife (Mar. 5) :
*^ Another load carried to its destination and
laid down, and I can turn in some other direction to
take up whatever the day brings along. With
modifications the thing repeats itself to the end.
Stage after stage is left behind and at last the goal
is reached. Wayworn, bruised, and tired we get
there, but what matters it— for when the gate opens
the character of the travel will be totally changed."
At various periods his friends tried to bring his
name before the public and so assist him, but not
the slightest effect was ever observed to result from
such efforts. After an article about him had ap-
peared in the Philadelphia Times (Mar. 17) he
comments on it thus :
'^Whether this ^writing me up' does more than
reminding a few people I am alive is questionable.
From all there never has been a really practical
business result, which may be owing to my deplor-
able lack of capacity for improving an opportunity
for temporal advantage. There is no ^push' in me.
The good Lord has given me other faculties, but
utterly denied this ; and I shall have to the end to
bear the consequences of fitting so awkwardly into
an age possessed with the advertising devil."
His effort to ^^ found a home" in Bel Air was an
honest though from a practical standpoint a mis-
guided one. Instead of founding one he left the
only real home he had— that of his son— and placed
himself again adrift. When for a time fortune
1 74 A VISION REALIZED
smiled and money began to come in he was prone to
be optimistic as to the future and feel sure it was
to be immediately followed by more and made his
plans accordingly; then, when suddenly the tide
turned, as it always did, he often went to the other
extreme and was very despondent.
^^Aye, aye," he says, ^4t is a curious life I lead!
Drift, drift, drift— these 40 and more years, truly
a wandering in the wilderness without proper home,
a living in tents, a nomadic existence. But shall the
wandering not cease ? Has the time not come with
my three-score years and ten^ If not, when will
^^More than once I have determined to plant
myself for perpetuity, but could take no hold upon
the soil. One might think I had slain my brother
and the curse of Cain was upon me. But instead
was I not rather like the Patriarchs who could own
not a foot of their promised land save where they
bought to bury their dead? or like a missionary
apostle, going about sowing seed in many a field
that afterward grew and bore fruit?
^^Now once more I have started the endeavor to
found a home, so late in life, and it seems so difficult
of accomplishment. Yet it must not be given up ; it
may be still possible. "
The above is quoted to show how deeply he felt
the position in which he now found himself. He
did not seem able to see that this move had been
purely a matter of will on his part and had not been
forced upon him as some former ones had ; nor had
there been any basis for considering that the change
of location would be of any benefit. However, so
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 1 75
he saw it and had deemed it his duty, and when his
son for business reasons had to leave Vienna for a
time, finally going to New York, Mrs. Oertel gave
in and went to make her home with him in Bel Air
(Aug. 10, 1894). Ill advised as this move seemed
to be, yet in the Bel Air studio was begun the work
designed 40 years before, the work for which so
many moves had been made and so much sacrificed,
the central point in the circle of his life around
which all his doings clustered and were in some way
connected— ^^ The Great Series."
His sons were now able to relieve him of the
necessity of making a living and leave him free to
accomplish that for which he had waited so long.
During the early part of 1895 he was occupied
mostly with portraits, animal pieces, etc., painting
only two important canvases, a ^^Eock of Ages,"
24 inches by 4 feet, the one before mentioned as
made for his son. Dr. T. E. Oertel, in New York and
^^ Evening Meditation," a monk leaning in cloister
door, with breviary, looking out at the fading even-
In the fall of 1895 he began preliminary work
for the painting of ^^The Dispensations," and in
the spring went to New York to study and refresh
his mind before entering upon the task of painting
so large a canvas. From New York he wrote
(Apr. 22) :
^^No doubt I shall go home with added strength
and courage braced up. The sluggish current of
my life has been stirred, and, like water tumbling
over rocks in a rough channel, received fresh air
and new motion and runs thereafter in a clearer
1 76 A VISION REALIZED
stream. The past weeks are something to ponder
on, and the contact with other folk has been of help ;
old friends have brought up old experiences and
induced many reflections, and perhaps words have
been spoken that echo on into the future— even
beyond the troublesome mortal hour.
^^I have attended a reunion of artists and visited
Grey, Brown, Perry, Eider, Thomas Moran, and
He often was perfectly oblivious to his personal
appearance. When he arrived in New York on this
trip he had on his head a most disreputable old hat
which his son immediately confiscated, giving him
a new one. A day or so later he went on a visit to
friends in Glen Cove and when he returned he had
on a still worse one, all slouched down in the brim
and full of holes, and he did not know it was not the
new one until his attention was called to it.
He had taken the first one he found on the rack
when leaving, which turned out to be the one used
by his friend when he worked in the garden. He
always put on his hat by placing it on the back of
his head and then giving the brim in front a pull,
leaving it, as he said ^^with a backward inclina-
tion," and it was not long before the hat itself as-
sumed that shape— setting back with front of brim
On his return the canvas was stretched for the
big picture and he began the work which he had
longed to do for so many years. Even while occu-
pied on the large works, as he was for several years,
he contrived to do many other things, both carving
and painting, producing what alone would seem to
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 1 77
have been enough to occupy all this time. Most of
what he did was given away. In writing of certain
work which had been made for a church, for which
he was to have been paid, he said : *'It is like I
might as well make a bona fide donation of what I
have done and cut short the idle speculation of ever
securing even small returns in money. By doing
this the business would be thrown behind into the
past, and my mind practically relieved from any
further thought and worry about it. "
**The Dispensations'' was exhibited in Wash-
ington, at St. Johns Hall, early in March and at-
tracted considerable attention.
An offer of purchase for $10,000 was received
from Rev. Samuel Beiler, Vice Chancellor of the
American University, Washington, this figure hav-
ing been agreed upon as a fair compensation by
several artists to whom the matter was referred.
Mr. Beiler at the time requested the Washing-
ton artist, Mr. Richard N. Brooke, to give him his
opinion of the painting, which he did in the follow-
ing letter :
'T)ear Sir : After very careful study *of Mr. Oertel's picture
of *The Dispensations of Promise and the Law' I am fully con-
firmed in the conviction that it is a great work of art and a
very distinct and notable triumph over the difficulties that must
necessarily be met where large masses of figures must be grouped
with exact regard to the literary requirements of the subject.
"Looking back I can recall no painter (out of quite an
extended acquaintance) who, in my belief, would liave met all
these requirements as fully and at the same time preserved a
harmony of color, and excellence of composition, as I consider
Mr. Oertel has done in this instance.
"I have passed, in the aggregate, hours before this picture,
and believe I have expressed the opinion of every serious artist
178 A VISION REALIZED
who has seen it, and I could give technical reasons for my judg-
ment, if necessary.
^*It appears to me one of those rare cases in which the some-
thing needed to be said has found the one man possessed of the
necessary equipment to say it clearly and conclusively.
"Hence I trust this notable picture will find its appropriate
place in some institution where it may become a public heritage,
and do the good of which I believe it to be capable. It seems
part of the nature of things that this should be so.
"Richard N. Brooke."
The following article was also written by Mr.
Brooke for the Washington Evening Star:
''The Dispensations of Promise and the Law."
''a great historical painting.
"Editor Evening Star: During part of last week there
was placed on private view in St. John's Parish Hall, and is
now on its way to the Nashville Exposition, a canvas well worthy
of this caption, and than which no more notable work of art
has been produced in America within the experience of the writer.
Si ace no adequate notice of this artistic event has reached the
press through the usual channels — due doubtless to the attitude
of the artist himself toward this particular work — would the
Star pennit me, speaking from the professional point of view,
to give to this noble effort the public importance it deserves?
"Modern painters have been accused, not unjustly, of having
abandoned the field of great composition, of having caught the
prevalent spirit of haste, or, when they undertake large can-
vases — which under such circumstances they do too frequently —
of attaching more importance to the technique of parts than to
the painter's own subjective vocation to his conception, which
is the essential basis for great pictures. None of these things
can justly be said of the artist and picture in question. To a
correct understanding of both it may be necessary to give some
account of the motives and circumstances leading up to its
"The painter. Rev. Johannes A. Oertel, is not, as might be
inferred, an amateur, but one who, before entering the ministry.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 1 79
had already risen high in his profession, and whose brush, as
this picture will attest, has lost nothing of its powers through
having been dedicated to the cause to which he has given all
"Born in Bavaria in 1823, he began life, like many eminent
artists, as a steel engraver, receiving his first impulse toward
composition from Kaulbach, at Munich.
"He came to New York at the age of 25 and afterward
entered the ministry while at the height of his success as a
painter. His subsequent life for nearly 40 years has been passed
in various charges, chiefly in the South, often officiating in
edifices designed by him and partially built by his own hands,
for he is not only a gifted architect but also a skilful carver
and worker in wood. Throughout his labors as pastor he has
still continued to be a prolific painter, keeping well in touch
with all that is best in current art and perhaps the gainer
through being far removed from the contact and influence of
its passing fads. Every one will recall his picture of the 'Eock
of Ages,^ of which the steel engraving is well known the world
over and has carried more of benediction to thousands of Chris-
tian homes than perhaps any single picture thus published.
"The present work, while no less serious in intention, is
immeasurably more important as an artistic achievement. The
first composition was made for it more than 40 years ago; to
paint it has been the dream of a lifetime. But it has been only
within the last three years, and when the artist had quite de-
spaired of ever attaining his desire, that circumstances have
been so arranged as to permit him to carry it into execution.
"The picture illustrates the Mosaic Dispensation and com-
prises the entire period of Old Testament History, the central
figure being Moses, around whom are grouped the lives of the
Patriarchs, the Prophets, and the Kings, with minor groups
representing the offiering of first fruits, the sin offering, thank-
offering, the Babylonian captivity, the overthrow of the gods
Moloch, Baal, Ashtoreth, Dagon, and their votaries, the punish-
ment of the scoffer, the altar of sacrifice, the High Priest, the
Ministering Angels, and, over all, radiating its light upon the
scene of which it is the source of illumination, the Shekinah.
"To group 140 figures successfully is an achievement; to do
this with a strict observance of the historic (literary) relation
and importance of each part multiplies the difficulty; but to
accomplish both without the result of an unpleasant line or a
1 80 A VISION REALIZED
single disturbance of the color harmony is a decided triumph
for an artist. This Mr. Oertel has suceeded in doing to a very-
marvelous degree. This is not to say that Mr. OerteFs picture
is without any discoverable flaw, or that its method of execution
would suit every follower of every special line of technique.
Of what picture ever painted could that be said? But Art
criticism stands upon a broader basis than this, and one soon
learns that the standard of merit of a picture is not its con-
formity to every variety of mind, but the sum total of its excel-
lencies. Regarded in this light, I can recall no picture produced
in recent years (and I think I have seen most important can-
vases) which met all the difficulties of composition more uni-
formly as to arrangement of line, light, color, balance, relative
importance of groups, centralization of the interest — and all this
with a strict adherence to the fundamental conception of the
subject — than this has done.
"And, after all, the value of a picture is the power and spirit
of its original conception; all else is the mere scaffolding; if
this be wanting, no quality of execution can elevate a common-
"Space would not permit a detailed description of the literary
meanings of this composition, even were it possible to describe
in words the complicated relation of its various groups. I can
only point in passing to the following features, which will address
themselves to all observers (for the picture will probably return
to Washington), viz.: The splendid sense of light throughout
the canvas; the feeling of atmosphere which places each group
at its proper distances; the fitness and character of the types,
such as the prophet Daniel, David, and others; the charming
color and technique of the heads in the middle plane, such as
Samson, or Joshua; the perfect perspective of the figures upon
different levels; the dramatic power of the action in the fore-
ground groups ; and the agreeable, almost sensuous sense of color,
quite rare in works of this character.
"The problem of dealing with larger masses of figures in
costume has always been so to arrange the patchwork of color
spots as to avoid unpleasant juxtapositions. In this the artist
is usually satisfied if he has succeeded in producing ^harmony
of analogy.^ Mr. Oertel has met this difficulty in a bold and
somewhat original way. Keeping one predominate tone, such as
sage green, in one group of figures, passing by a skilful transi-
tion into the prevalence of rose or violet in the adjoining group.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 181
and so throughout the canvas. And thus the eye is led by an
agreeable rhythm and harmony of color from group to group, each
having its distinct characteristic.
"Nothing could be more beautiful in color than a certain
minor group in the middle distance made up of halftones, which
serve as a rest to the eye after passing over another group of
which reds are the keynote. This method of treatment is relieved
of any suggestion of monotony by the introduction of small
notes of contrasting color, such as the touch of red given by the
helmet plume in the foreground.
"All these points of merit will in time speak for them-
selves, but after several hours passed in the study of its merits,
it appears to me both timely and proper to state publicly what
I believe to be in substance the opinion of all serious artists
who have seen it.
"Mr. Oertel has accomplished something of note in art, and
his work should find some fitting place in one of our great
educational institutions or galleries of pictures, where it would
serve as an example of persistent and successful endeavor apart
from its great historical value.
"Richard N. Brooke.
"Washington, D. C, March 27, 1897 r
Mr. Seller's offer was refused by the artist for
a number of reasons, the chief one of which was
that the picture was one of a series and should not
be separated from the others which he Intended to
go on and paint. Of course Mr. Seller could not
guarantee to take the others, even If he desired
them, as they did not exist and there was no cer-
tainty that Mr. Oertel would live to produce them.
So the picture remained the property of the artist
and was sent to Nashville, Tenn., to be exhibited at
the State exposition then In progress. Later It was
sent to Baltimore and placed on exhibition there.
He went Immediately to work on the second of
the ''Series," ''The Redeemer." This was prac-
182 A VISION REALIZED
tically completed by the end of the year, but in addi-
tion he did much other work.
*^The Evening Sacrifice," ''Our First Parents,
over against Eden, at Evening Sacrifice,'' ''The
Martyrdom of St. Stephen," 7 feet 7 inches by 9
feet 3 inches for St. Stephen's Mission Chapel, St.
Louis, Mo., "The Expulsion from Eden," were the
paintings produced, and a carved pulpit and lec-
tern in oak were made for Emmanuel Church,
The year ended with disaster of a nature that
for some time clogged the wheels of the household
and hindered art work as well. Mrs. Oertel, on
Christmas eve, when the family were all gathered
together in anticipation of enjoying the holidays,
fell downstairs and sustained serious injuries. For
weeks little else was done but care for this, the most
important member of the family. Her recupera-
tive powers astonished the doctors; though with
broken arm and ankle and numerous strains and
bruises she rallied from the shock rapidly, sat up
the third day and had her picture taken, and never
ceased to direct and advise those who so depended
on her for counsel.
The third of the series was not at once at-
tempted. He put the finishing touches on "The
Eedeemer" during the first months of 1898 and
painted, life size (54 by 100 inches) "Jesus or
Barrabbas," and the last of April finished a grand
lion picture called "The Desert King." The
"Jesus or Barabbas" was sent to the 'Academy' in
New York ' ' for possible exhibition. ' ' When ' ' The
Dispensations" was on exhibition in Baltimore
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 183
(May) he visited that city and while there deliv-
ered several lectures on art and Christian
While there he met an old Bavarian friend, Dr.
Volk ^Svhom," he says, '^I found busy— by gas-
light—on some silver chasing, in the manner— and
what is yet far superior— in the spirit of those men
with whom art was a God-given inspiration, a
Lumple love pursuit, their life a joy in unselfish
labor; the world, its applause and rewards, an
almost unknown quantity. His works excited my
surprise and honest admiration, the more so be-
cause he is self-taught and does this work after
dark until 12 or 1 at night with immense industry
and perseverance. It is a great encouragement to
meet such a case in this our degenerate, shallow
days, and the memory of it will help me in hours of
difficulty and struggle such as are my lot not infre-
quently. The genuine art spirit is yet a possibility
after all, and I thank the Lord for even one in-
stance, as an example that links the great past still
with the present, despite the blatant, gaudy, irrev-
erent, and flighty doings of the madly experiment-
ing youthful rabble of the day.
''Opportunity to see some new things, though
not in the shape of paintings, and to have some
talks on art matters will furnish me stimulus for
some time to come. Ah! and so often I have felt
the need of it. Isolation and solitude may be favor-
able to productiveness, but continued perforce too
long stagnation sets in and a paralysis of virile
action not over good for works for art. Situated as
I am it is a hard battle in which often I go to the
184 A VISION REALIZED
ground, though others may not see the defeat, and
Of the attempt to have the ^^ Jesus or Barabbas"
exhibited at the Academy he wrote Mr. Hyde
(Mar. 15) :
^^The modern New York art world has once
more given me unmistakable 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 Cruci-
fied and forever stay there. That despised, thorn-
crowned Nazarene is no more welcome to-day than
he was 18 centuries ago.
"By the inclosed photograph ('^ Jesus or Barab-
bas") you 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 pic-
ture had been returned to him. To be sure it is
exactly what I anticipated. Such things have no
longer a place in modern exhibitions. The Acad-
emy is revolutionized— dear old fogy affair— and
got into the control of Parisian-taught youngsters ;
the former respectable, sober, conservative institu-
tion is gone. Well, I shall in future act on the
lesson. My wife suggested I should write to you
making inquiry whether a chance can not be found
in Boston for exhibition. Your judgment may tell
you whether there are any chances whatever in
intellectual Boston. I myself do not know.
*'I confess to have gotten at fault with the
world. Somehow we do not agree. What is more,
I do not want to agree. You have no idea what an
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 185
apathetic fellow to the world's blandishments your
old friend has got to be. Diogenes in his tub, with
the great Alexander before him, is no circumstance
in comparison. Well, I have with admiration read
the maxims of the heathen stoic philosophers, and
would it not be a shame for an instructed Christian
to be outdone in indi:fference to the world by them?
^* Haven't we better ground to stand on and an
infinitely superior example? Why, there is abso-
lute luxury in this delightful independence, and
those New York fellows have no conception what a
wealth they have contributed to it. If they knew,
chagrin would make them recall my picture."
A glorious independence for him it truly was no
longer to be by reason of financial conditions at the
mercy of the ^^Committe of Selection" for daily
As the time drew near for the exhibition in Bal-
timore to close he began to feel the responsibility of
having these large works in his possession. It was
not his intention to keep them for any length of
time, and after due consideration he wrote the fol-
lowing letter to the Bishop of Tennessee.
It may be explained here that on going to
Sewanee in 1886 he had been transferred from the
Diocese of Washington to that of Tennessee under
which he still remained.
"Bel Air, Md., April 16, 1898.
"Eight Eev. Thomas F. Gailor, D.D.
"My Dear Bishop : The substance of this letter has by in-
tention been written long ago. But what I desire to say now
needs introduction by a brief history concerning three large
paintings which together form a series.
"It is no exaggeration to say that the first embodied design —
186 A VISION REALIZED
the second of the series — came to me as a veritable vision,
without conscious preparation or forethought, 45 years ago.
"The second also was given me in a similar manner a few
years afterward, and subsequently carried out as a large crayon
drawing from which some photographs were made in 1864 or
1865. But until three years ago, by want of means and other
causes, their execution on a becoming scale was delayed and
quite mysteriously hindered.
"It never seemed to me probable that in this country, and
with the popular taste inclined as I knew it to be, there would
ever be an opportunity of sale. The pictures would have to be
made a donation to some public institution, a free gift for general
"An opportunity for sale was indeed presented for the first
in the series while for a few days on exhibition in Washington,
D. C, and before it went to Nashville, but the offer came from
the vice chancellor of the ^American University' (Methodist),
and the terms of payment proposed of $10,000, the sum named
by a competent artist as ^merely a respectable compensation,'
gave no suflBcient guaranty and had to be rejected. Otherwise,
without any participation of mine except by passive yielding
on account of their urgency, two efforts were made to secure
these paintings, first to the Cathedral established at Washington,
and then at New York by interested clerical friends. Both failed
as I anticipated.
"I vieAved these failures as a divine indication that the course
for many years existing in my o\vti mind was what my Master
intended, and that, as the subjects were freely given to me, so
they should when adequately embodied be freely consecrated
to the Lord's service.
"I therefore now offer them, through you, to the Theological
Department of the University of the South.
"The Series should go together.
"Although each composition is a unit by itself, yet they tell
a connected story — the Story of Eedemption; the first, the Old
Testament preparation; the second, redemption as practically
applied to the individual man during a time of probation; the
third, the Era of the Holy Spirit, the Church Idea.
"A fourth one has originally been in my thoughts and par-
tially noted doAvn, namely, the consummation of the divine
scheme in the future of God's Church until the end. But
inasmuch as this is still prophetic and not already historic, the
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 187
three may be suffered to stand by themselves for the historic
fulfilment of the Divine Plan of Eedemption in its compre-
"As such the series, I devoutly trust, will be no invaluable
aid to students by a graphic delineation of important facts of
theology, and if at Sewanee they accomplish this mission I shall
have very sufficient compensation.
"The first of the series is at present in Baltimore, and only
for a few days more. On that account I deem it a great favor
if you let me have a decision, either of acceptance or the contrary,
at your earliest moment. A few words will sufiSce. I do not
know whether you can act alone, or have to confer with the
vice chancellor, but in either case an early answer would direct
my necessary movements here.
"One condition only I would beg to make, namely, that in
case you accept the gift for the University the institution should
assume the cost of transportation from Baltimore to Sewanee.
It can be only a few dollars. Painting and frame are in separate
long boxes, the painting rolled, with stretcher in one, the frame,
home made, and in sections, in the other. By paying freight
at the other end I imagine better care can be insured of the goods.
"This preliminary step settled, the next ones, like the fur-
nishing of a description and sending of the second painting,
nearly done, can be arranged in due order.
"By writing this letter a load of shifting quantity has been
dropped from my shoulders.
"When the destination of these works, for so long carried
as a solemn obligation, has been fixed I shall be as a man who
has performed his vow and relieved his conscience.
"My friend Bishop Quintard has gone Home. I now with
heartiest devotion greet you as my Bishop, and myself subscribe
as your servant in the Lord,
"Johannes A. Oeetel."
On receiving this letter Bishop Gailor for-
warded it to the vice chancellor of the University
and received the following reply :
"Apeil 35, 1898.
"My Dear Bishop Gailor : Your letter of 22d inst., inclosing
one from Mr. Oertel, is duly received. We certainly appreciate
188 A VISION REALIZED
Doctor's Oertel's most gracious consideration for us, and will
gladly defray all expense in connection with the shipping of
the pictures. We should value them very highly, and will give
them the very best space at our disposal.
"Please to convey to Doctor Oertel our high appreciation of
"With warmest regards, yours, very faithfully,
"B. L. Wiggins,
At the same time the vice chancellor wrote to
Mr. Oertel :
"April 25, 1898.
"The Rev. Johannes A. Oertel,
Bel Air, Maryland.
"Eeverend and Dear Sir : Bishop Gailor has communicated
to me the contents of your letter to him, and I wish to assure
you of the high appreciation of the University for your most
"The University will gladly defray the expense in connection
with the shipping of the pictures, and we shall place them to
the best advantage on our walls.
"Your other picture, 'The Shadow of the Rock,' is hung
in our newest building and people come from a distance to see
and admire it.
"With high regard, yours, very faithfully,
"B. L. Wiggins,
Bishop Gailor 's letter to Mr. Oertel follows:
"Memphis, Tenn., Apnl 29, 1898.
"My Dear Mr. Oertel : I thank you with all my heart in
the name of the University, and as one who learned to regard
your life and work with reverence in the old days for your
thought of our dear Sewanee. I had to write to the vice chan-
cellor before I could formally accept the gift, and now I inclose
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 189
his letter. The board of trustees will of course make a formal
acknowledgment at its meeting in August.
"Assuring you of my cordial regard, and with affectionate
greeting I am,
"Most sincerely, yours,
"Thomas F. Gailor.
"The Eev. J. A. Oertel,
''Bel Air, Mdr
On receiving Mr. Oertel's letter in regard to the
possibilities of exhibiting in Boston, Mr. Hyde im-
mediately began to investigate and f oimd the man
H. Jay Smith mentioned before in connection with
the ^^Eock of Ages." When Mr. Smith heard of
the large works Mr. Oertel had recently painted he
became very much interested and at once made ar-
rangements to go to Bel Air to see them.
Before he could do so Mr. Oertel had another
accident, which again for a time put a stop to art
work. He had been repeatedly warned not to ride
a ' ' wheel, ' ' yet he persisted in doing so and had both
bicycle and tricycle.
A letter written by Mrs. Oertel to her son in
New York (May 4) tells the story.
^^We certainly have become the record ^break-
ers' of Hartford County. Don't you remember,
long ago, when Papa first got Svheels in his head,'
you said to me, ^If Papa ever attempts to ride a
wheel he will break that right wrist over again"?
You were a prophet. He has done it. Here he sits
with his arm in splints, suif ering like a dog, and—
the wheel is for sale. He was about ready for it.
Had just finished the big picture (^The Redeemer'),
taken down the ladder, and cleaned out the room,
so if Mr. Smith comes he is ready for him."
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 191
Mr. Smith arrived some days later. He was
very much pleased with the pictures and at
once made a proposition to take them for ex-
hibit. He believed that in New England, Bos-
ton especially, they would be appreciated and
Mr. Oertel was very skeptical as to the results
of such an exhibition. ^^He is like a stag at bay,"
writes Mrs. Oertel. ^^He has had so many failures
and disappointments that he is out of all sorts with
the business world. ' ' However, he consented in the
end to let Mr. Smith take the pictures provided the
vice chancellor of the University to which he had
given them was willing to have them go before they
finally were sent to Sewanee.
This permission was given and the three large
canvases, ^^The Dispensations," **The Redeemer,"
and *^ Jesus or Barabbas" were forwarded to Mr.
Smith at Boston.
After Smith had placed the pictures on exhibi-
tion he wrote that as he was advertising them as by
the painter of ^^The Eock of Ages" he wished he
could have a copy of that famous picture to exhibit
Mr. Oertel at once offered to paint one for the
purpose, and did so, at the suggestion of Mr. Smith,
making the life-size painting before mentioned.
This was completed August 20 and sent on.
Mr. Smith was so sanguine of results, looking
at it purely from the standpoint of a financial ven-
ture, that it seemed possible some degree of success
might attend the undertaking. Mr. Oertel's style
had greatly changed in the last years, and what he
192 A VISION REALIZED
now offered was vastly superior to the works of
^^You do not know how he paints now," writes
his wife to ^'Edward". '^The old brown style of
the past is all gone; he has become a first class
colorist. Don't think it partiality in me— for he
calls me his severest critic— but if you could see his
present works you would be astonished. ^^The
Gethsemane" and ^'Expulsion" are gems. He is
just finishing a grand lion picture, and if he saw an
opening for his paintings he would work like a
steam engine. He executes most rapidly and has
ideas by the score waiting the time when they can
be painted, and new ones keep crowding on."
Smith had also for exhibition at the same time
*Hhe most extraordinary nude ever exhibited in
America" (^'Rona") and crowds flocked to see it,
but the exhibition of the Oertel pictures did not
prove the success that Smith expected and at first
he said he thought it was because he did not know
how to handle that class of work. After further
efforts had been made he wrote :
''When I wrote you I had failed because I did
not know how to handle the paintings I should have
written, instead, because I did not know the New
England people. I find the vast majority of people
in this section care very little for orthodox ideas,
and want subjects either of the nude, mirthful, or
startling and sensational. People will not pay to
see a painting unless sensational in some way. ' ' On
receipt of this letter Mr. Oertel immediately or-
dered the ''Dispensations," "The Redeemer," and
"Jesus or Barabbas" forwarded to Sewanee. It
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 193
appears that the latter painting was also presented
to the University at this time, though there is no
record of the action.
During the early part of this year he was busy
making studies for the third of the ''Series," ''The
Dispensation of the Holy Spirit," and began to
paint on it in August. He writes: "I am working
down from the top and for over a week have been
among the angelic host; now among the Apostles—
exalted company to be sure— and I have to use very
pure color to express it. This picture will be my
witness for Truth and a protest against modern un-
belief. ' ' On August 8, 1899, he was notified that the
degree of Doctor of Divinity had been conferred on
him by the University of the South. This honor
was accepted in the following characteristic letter :
"Bel Air, Md., August 12, 1899.
"B. S. Wiggins, D.D.,
''Vice Chancellor, University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn.
"My Dear Sir : But from Sewanee, I would not accept the
honor the board of trustees has been pleased to confer on me
by the degree of Doctor of Divinity, being conscious of neither
scholarship nor learning sufficient for such distinction.
"It must have been offered, I must believe, as an indorsement
by the board of the scriptural doctrine in my pictures being
trustworthy interpreters, and as such I accept the great honor
thankfully from the University that has my love and service,
and let it be to me a stimulus more truly to deserve it.
"Yours, very faithfully,
"Johannes A. Oertel."
During the fall he repainted the ^'EzekiePs
Vision," destroying the original copy made some
years before. His experience since the first one
was made had taught him that a large canvas, where
194 A VISION REALIZED
so many figures were grouped, should not be
painted as it had been. He did not know how to
properly handle it then; now he did— and it must
be done over entirely.
In the spring of this year his son Fred, who was
in the service of the Government, had succeeded in
being transferred from New York to Washington
and it was deemed best to again bring the family
together in the Virginia home.
Accordingly, on October 4, ^^Owls Roost," as the
Vienna house was called because of the propensity
of the family to keep late hours, was again occu-
pied, Mrs. Oertel and the grandchildren removing
from Bel Air, though Mr. Oertel preferred to re-
main until he could complete the big picture on
which he was then working.
His life while there, alone again, perhaps had
best be told as he wrote it in letters to his wife.
October 23. **Day by day," he says, ^'I toil on,
conscious that what at present occupies my heart,
mind, and brush is not an unimportant contribution
as a witness in behalf of the truth now so wantonly
assailed by the modern spirit of anti-Christ. Daily
I am bringing out with greater emphasis the super-
natural element of the Church of Christ, its God-
^^I am now in hopes that by the end of this year
I can close the substantial work on the painting so
that little besides harmonizing will have to lap over
into 1900 ; already I leap forward in mind, now and
then, to the fourth, and arrange for the upper
On his birthday, November 3, he wrote: '^By
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 195
right of custom I ought to have sent a birthday
remembrance to Fred, if I were not cowed into
bashfuhiess by the ever-recurring confession of
poverty by offering a picture. Why, the miserable
drug— it's too plentiful and dirt cheap to give here-
after to any of my family. I am sick of them
myself. * * *
^*As I have the happy faculty of almost as well
looking behind as before, I undertook the barber
business with my hair in propria persona, and suc-
ceeded, of course, astonishingly well. Conquering
persistent obstacles is one of the chief lessons the
many years of life have hammered into me and
* self-help' is a prominent article in my creed of ex-
istence ; or am I too old for unremitting practice.
What would become of my art without if?
'^I am called on often by visitors to explain the
picture, now nearly done. Don't I wish I had the
story of the explanation on tinfoil and a phono-
graph on hand, so that somebody else could grind it
out for visitors without the necessity of my pres>
ence ! What a blessed relief it would be. I think
such an apparatus might be employed with benefit
even by the Sewanee folk, and perhaps I will make
the suggestion. And have I not cause for congratu-
lation that in any event the lugubrious business will
by and by pass to others' hands, who, perchance,
see things I never dreamed of and embellish the
story of redemption in a manner as intelligible and
logical as the typical boy composition on *the sub-
**And now the birthday talk is done with and
the light of the day departed and gone. How many
196 A VISION REALIZED
more— or how few— of these days, and what are
they to bring of joy or sorrow, and what work to be
yet accomplished? There is ever the dark riddle
of the Future into which no anxious peering can
avail to give knowledge besides the sweet hope a
true faith does kindle and keep bright to steer our
lives' bark by— and thank God for this. Let us
through the darkness be cheered by the Beacon on
'^With my picture I am coming on bravely. I
am now putting to rights the front of scoffers, and
gold and pleasure seekers, the Briggses and Vol-
taires and Tom Paines in the Church with the gold
hunters and stock jobbers and usurers everywhere.
When this corner is done and a revision of the
Apostles, there remains only a general retouching
and harmonizing. ' '
On January 20 he began to get ready to move
and did some packing. ' ' But ah me, ' ' said he, ' ' the
accumulation of years. Going over the mass makes
me feel a thousand years old, and it is such a sad
and dreary reminder of a multitude of people,
plans, and associations, all now in the dim and gray
past and rising again like ghosts from trodden-
down and forgotten graves. To have to rummage
in the dust of ages and stir up the remains of long
departed days, and think over again faded experi-
ences, and communicate with the spirits that are
gone— what a diary it is to read perforce over and
feel so many hopes and pangs and disappointments
again, and the hot determined struggle with ad-
verse fate and changeful conditions that, after all,
got the mastery and shaped one's course so differ-
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 197
ent from what was dreamed of and the fond heart
^* A journal kept in words is cruel enough in con-
juring up the buried past; but one in the visible
forms of art, giving actual shape to each thouglit
and object and clustered full of associations more
vivid than speech of any sort is— to the man whose
record they are, and who in the course of the years
without design to say much has yet said far more
than he intended— a most pregnant book of recol-
lections, though no one besides can read as he can
the strange cipher of his life."
So he lived and worked. His letters speak of
the many little things done for him by his friends
who took pity on his lone condition.
Whatever acquaintance with the people may
have developed during seven years' residence
among them, sure it is that in no place of sojourn-
ing of the Oertel family in their wanderings over
the broad land was more personal kindness shown
them than by the good people of Bel Air, Md.
He sent a couple of animal pictures *'In a New
England Quarry" and '^A King of the Desert" to
the exhibition in Philadelphia, once more tempting
the fates. They were accepted and hung but did
not sell, and when returned he comments thus :
*'It is something for me to be admitted even to
the exhibition, considering the gantlet to run of
some 20 ^'judges of selection," and the hope of a
sale is perhaps, all things considered, a crazy one
and I am a deluded prehistoric fossil to indulge in
it for a moment. By this time I ought fully to un-
derstand, taught by experience, that the Lord wants
198 A VISION REALIZED
me to count myself outside the world-crowd of
artists, both by aim and practice, and commissioned
to do a work apart and which can not be mixed
up with the prevailing popular styles of thought,
subjects, or execution.
**The naked vixen in the Corcoran Gallery that
gave such offense is a common type of the art that
now has an applauding public, and I can not be
wrong in believing that with the evident decline and
degeneration in religion and morals the art also
must go down, and become more trivial, showy, and
given wholly to externals. What the current peri-
odicals show is on the whole a just exponent of what
the galleries contain."
On February 10 he writes that the picture is
finished, and goes on to say: ^* Probably I have
made a good picture. I think so myself, now. 'It
is the Lord's doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.'
That is the inside of it. Without He supplying my
well, I could never have pumped out of it such a
stream of clear water, considering the desert of my
surroundings. Where else did it all come from?"
The painting of this picture seemed to tax him
greatly. For the first two he had much more prep-
aration and had already made cartoons of the sub-
jects carefully worked out; for this he had only a
few sketches. When at last it was done he shows
his state of mind and the strain of the work, espe-
cially under such conditions as he imposed on
**I am tired," he writes, ''of the howling out-
side and shaking of windows. I am tired of the cold
and snow. I am tired of darning stockings and
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 199
mending trousers. I am tired of cooking meals,
concocting unheard of dishes, washing pots, think-
ing about victuals, running to market, and specu-
lating on the next programme. I am tired of bolt-
ing eatables in * solitary confinement.' I am tired of
stove shaking and ash dumping and fussing with
separating cinders. I am tired of being day and
night and all the time between in a lonely hole
amidst the same things gaping at me. I am tired of
that big canvas and wish it were over the hills and
far away. I am tired of being compelled to stare
at it and pick out flaws. I am tired of the very idea
of having by myself to pack interminable trash and
useless rubbish and dearly pay for its removal. I
am tired of this bachelor imprisonment and all its
cheerless accompaniments, tired of this banish-
ment, and many things more. There ! That's a list
of some of my grievances ! If it is not enough, I
can pile on indefinitely ; but by this time, I am sure,
your pity is sufficiently excited. Any human soul
would have compassion on me.
^^Now the big canvas finished, I have nothing to
absorb my surplus energy and so must growl, at
least for the present.
' ' Some days will have to go by before I can settle
down to some other regular work. The carthorse
habit, I have to confess, is in my bones, too, perhaps
the more so as years increase ; for old things and old
people get knotty and gnarled and more difficult to
move, and the arrival at every successive station
exhibits more the desire to stop just there. Plod-
ding like a plow ox is now more to my liking than
romping like a pup. "
200 A VISION REALIZED
But the ^'carthorse habit" was too strong to
allow him to flag. In a few days he went to work
making a frame for the picture so it could be ex-
hibited in Washington, where it was placed (Mar.
8) for a short time in St. John's Hall, going from
there direct to Sewanee.
March 18, 1900, the last move of his life was
made, and at '*Owls Eoost" he settled down to
spend his remaining years and finish his work in the
new studio then being built near the house.
The principal paintings of this year, after the
large one was completed, were, ^'Man" in his record
described as ^^a nude male figure, sitting on a bit of
cloud within a large circle of nightly sky, with
stars, comet, and a new moon, wonder stricken.
Painted for myself as an expression of the mystery
of being." It is a remarkable picture. Man, alone
in the great universe, naught to show from whence
he came or whither he is going, supported only by
the bit of cloud and naked. Is not this the position
we all occupy'? ^^ Easter Morning," the Lord step-
ping forth from the tomb. This was a life-size
figure on canvas 4 feet 9 inches by 9 feet. It was
painted for St. Stephen's Memorial Church, St.
Under these conditions opened the year 1901.
After a life of wandering at last, in his 78th year,
he had a home. He could now look with compla-
cency upon the years of toil and trial; he had
climlDed the height, and from the summit looked
down on the devious and rugged path by which he
had ascended with a calm and satisfied mind. Over
all this he had been led as in climbing a great moun-
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 201
tain, from crag to crag, up dizzy heights, over
foaming torrents, often well-nigh spent, but with
eyes ever on the shining summit and trusting in his
Master to help and support from day to day and
year to year.
Three of the great works were completed; he
was free to go on with the last. Why should he not
say *^ All is well, the spirit of divine wisdom through
whom came the thought of these works and who has
graciously helped me in the expression knew how
to frame what would appeal to the greatest number
at least of sincere persons in perfect conformity to
scriptural truth. Myself had very little to do with
the process except as an instrument. "
Early in this year he painted a large canvas,
4 feet 6 inches by 8 feet 3 inches of '^Christ Knock-
ing at the Door of the Twentieth Century." Eev.
Ill, 20. This was also presented to the University
of the South.
His belief that the end of the dispensation was
approaching, that the ^4ast times were at hand"
when the great battle of Armageddon would be
fought, shows itself again, as in ^^Charlemagne,"
by the painting of ^^Barbarossa" from the well-
known legend that in the center of the Plain of
Sennheim (or Cernay) beneath a great rock called
the ^'Biblestein" sleeps Frederick Barbarossa who
bore the title of the Duke of Alsace. He is shown
sleeping with his knights around him, his flaming
beard grown through the table on which he leans,
^^ awaiting the hour of destiny, when he will arise
and lead the armies of the empire to victory."
On April 16 he sketched the canvas for the last
202 A VISION REALIZED
of the '^Series" and for the remainder of the year
most of his time was given to that. Mr. Hyde was
very enthusiastic over the ^^ Series," and suggested
that they should all be exhibited together. Mr.
Oertel did not look with favor on the scheme, but
consented that Mr. Hyde should request the loan
of those already at Sewanee, provided he did so on
his own responsibility.
Mrs. Oertel writes: ^^You do not apprehend the
condition of his mind in regard to them. They have
been made a gift to the Lord, not to Sewanee ; and
to try to use them to make money would be to him
a sacrilege." How^ever, the trustees of the Uni-
versity were not willing to loan the pictures, so that
ended the matter greatly to his satisfaction.
The last of the ^^ Series" was finished early in
the year. Much to his delight ^^ Edward" came
down from Boston to see it and him and remained
about a week. This visit was the greatest pleasure
that could have been given him ; days they spent in
the studio together, these two— Master and pupil—
who had clung to each other through the long years.
On June 2, 1902, after his return, Mrs. Oertel
wrote him :
^*I want you to know that the great work is ac-
complished! The last canvas was shipped on
Saturday last. May 31, and the 50 years agony is
over. Laus Deo ! Such a long time, and how dis-
couraging it would have been to look forward to
if it could have been foreseen.
*^What a blessing it is that the impenetrable
veil hangs over our future, and how evident the
reason of the delay. Even 20 years ago he could not
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 203
have made the works what they are now. Will it
not be that way when we look back from the battle-
ments of the New Jerusalem, will we not see in so
many instances why our ways were overruled as
they were, and we were not permitted to walk in
the paths we fain would have chosen for our feet"?"
After the big picture was sent to Sewanee he
took no rest but continued with other designs, pro-
ducing in succession several important works, a
^^Rock of Ages" which was presented to Mrs. Kate
B. Cannon, of Kansas City, Mo., ^^The Wandering
Jew," and ^^The Vision of Canaan."
^^The Wandering Jew" is an independent in-
terpretation of the legend. The despised Jew has
wandered restless for nearly 2,000 years. The sun
of the Dispensation is nearly setting. The ruins of
the centuries are about him and the sinking sun
casts his shadow ahead of him in Cross form. The
painting expressed the artist's belief that the day
of the present Dispensation is very near its close,
and the Jew divinely recognizes the time has come
to wend his steps back to the land of his fathers,
seeking rest and perchance to revive his national-
ity. Of the truths bringing on the movement he is
as yet prof oimdly ignorant, but a mysterious spirit
impels him as the time draws rapidly near when
ancient prophecies must be fulfilled.
**The Vision of Canaan" represented Moses
where he is shown the promised land that he may
not enter. It is a typical scene of wide meaning, of
the old and the new covenant, the covenants of law
and of grace, of the land this side of the mystical
Jordan and the wider land that stretches beyond.
204 A VISION REALIZED
We all occupy a situation like that. We look, by
sublime faith, beyond the dividing Jordan flood to
our promised land. It is the gracious Lord Himself
shows us the way.
This was also presented to the University of the
On May 30 the vice chancellor of the University
wrote asking him to come to Sewanee and lecture on
the *^ Series" and art. Accordingly, about the
middle of June, he went. Those who have followed
in this narrative his struggles to attain the end now
reached can perhaps to some degree appreciate his
feelings as he came before the assembly in Sewanee
to tell them of his works, at last completed.
Of this he writes his wife :
^^My Dear Wife : It seems months since I left
home— the more so because I have heard nothing
from you— and yet the time is only one week.
''My usually quiet, uneventful life makes such
a change appear like a revolution. Many faces turn
up that seemed forgotten and wiped out with our
memory of them, and it seems truly strange to have
been remembered by them, so many years having
passed since our living on the mountain.
''Of course that which touches me is of first in-
terest, and the great event, speaking on my pictures
is happily over. A marked success it proved.
There was a crowd in the hall, and the board of
trustees adjourned their meeting in order to be
present. Certainly I never before had so distin-
guished an interested audience, nor was so warmly
and cordially received. It was evident that my
206 A VISION REALIZED
labors were not without fruit, and I thank the Lord
for the fruit of my toil. Bishop Gailor, in his
happy manner, introduced me, and after conclud-
ing my address, which was without reference to my
notes except the concluding sentences, the Bishop
of Georgia made a call for a vote of thanks which
brought all to their feet, and the Bishop of Florida
concluded. Since then Dr. Du Bose and many
others have spoken to me. But even this is not to
be the end. Many desire more information, among
them the divinity students, so there is promise that
I have not labored in vain. It is certainly true that
on the great world-public by my labors I have made
very ephemeral impression, and they have prac-
tically ignored my doings and left me in poverty
and alone. I care not for it. But here is a prospect
of usefulness, for it, not fame, I have coveted, nor
the gold that perisheth.
^^ Bishop Gailor also in his address said I had
brought art to the mountain and educated a race of
carvers in wood. You see the seed is not sown in
June 29, 1902, the degree of Doctor of Divinity
was formally conferred on him by the Bishop of
Alabama, and he writes :
^^So the august ceremony has confirmed the
honorary proclamation of three years ago, and so I
am a full-fledged D.D. Wonderful ! What would
now my little mother say who always regarded me
as such an extraordinary specimen under any cir-
cumstances 1^ What if she and father and brother
Fritz looked on unseen ! Who knows ?
^^Well, perhaps there is more and sounder
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 207
theology in my pictures and some of my old lectures
than even is known or recognized by the authority
that conferred the degree."
And to this Mrs. Oertel replied July 2 :
*'So you have come about to the climax of your
career, the ^ Great Series' done and given away, and
yourself invested with the hood of a Doctor of
Divinity. Yes ; what would Grossmutter say ? But
more, what would Fritz say'? (His brother Fritz
was also a clergyman of the Church.) Well, it is
not every man that struggles who is permitted to
see the fruit of it all to such an extent, so we will
be thankful. The way has been long and stony
enough, and the top of the hill seemed unattainable
—but you got there. ' '
It is quite certain these last words were not
intended as slang, as probably she had never heard
them so used.
July 7 he lectured on the ^^ Revelation of the
Beautiful" in the hall where the big pictures had
been hung. *^ So that now the series are together,"
he says, ^^and I also can see the accomplished
struggle of many years in one room. It really
appears as if your old man, in the evening of his
days, were being looked upon as an individual of
some importance and might be useful in the world,
and that when the great world of art has forgotten
my name and existence. It is better so."
With the works already mentioned the rest of
this year was consumed.
An immense amount of work was done during
the next year, although considerably broken into
by the serious illness of his wife. First came ^^A
208 A VISION REALIZED
Glimpse of Glory," an old man on top of a ladder,
leaning against clouds, eagerly looking over to see
what is beyond. He says: ^'I call it ^Looking in.'
Various are the ladders set for us by God's kind
providence during our time of training, by means
of which we may get a glimpse of glory."
Next he began to repair ^^The Final Harvest,"
which showed the effects of time and frequent
moves, but after working on it for some days con-
cluded it was not worth it and discarded it entirely,
stretched a fresh canvas and repainted it. It was
made the same size as the original, in a 6-foot circle,
but the canvas was square so the frame could be
made so, as the original had been in a circular
frame, which was found to be a great disadvantage
and very expensive.
There followed ^^Mary Magdalene Embracing
the Foot of the Cross," ^^The Expulsion from
Eden," ^^ Noah's Sacrifice after the Flood," two
figures of St. Paul, one of which was sent the Rev.
E. L. Hyde with the note, ^^Keep the painting in
memory of your old friend and the delightful visit
he had from you. " '' The Victor, ' ' a design treated
as statuary, the dead warrior carried from the bat-
tlefield upon his shield, according to the Spartan
mother's charge to her son when giving him that
defensive arm, ^^Come with it or upon it," since
the greatest disgrace to a Spartan was to cast away,
in fleeing from the enemy, his shield, and which the
apostle, admonishing the Christian warrior, calls
'Hhe shield of faith."
In August of this year (1903) he again visited
Sewanee remaining about five weeks. He retouched
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 209
the big paintings and assisted in taking them down
to be photographed.
He delivered six lectures, three to the students
and three to the general public. ^*To the theolo-
gians were given what is instructive in the symbol-
ism of the Mosaic Dispensation"; to the public,
talks were on "the use of art, the paintings in the
Roman Catacombs, and Ary Scheffer.''
As the time for his return drew near he wrote
his wife : ' ' Now my visit is ending and I go back to
hard work, to -me the occupation that wears best
and pays most. What solace there is in the persua-
tion that our work of whatever kind is, by devout
intention, a God service— be it acknowledged and
valued by men or neglected and forgotten. We can
do no more in the world of toil and tears than faith-
fully sow our seed and let the Lord of Heaven, of
the rain and the sunshine, take care of it against
the day of harvest."
And so he returned to his studio and plunged
into work. The main object of his life was accom-
plished, but he could not rest. His portfolios were
filled with designs miade in former years but never
painted, and his brain continually evolved addi-
tional subjects. It was just as if he were driven.
Work, work, work unceasingly, grinding out pic-
tures. It was a general family joke how he was
filling the studio with them— and they could not be
disposed of except as gifts.
From his portfolios came timeworn sketches and
designs, and they were rapidly painted ; from the
walls of house and studio were taken pictures to be
revised and worked over according to what he
considered the needs of each.
^^The time has come with me,^' he said, "that
instead of constantly rolling out new things, many
of them have to be left as sketches or incomplete
productions to give accumulations of many years
more adequate expression, so that in case they can
be brought together they form as it were by a cer-
tain continuity of thought a harmonious gallery.
I have come where many of the hesitancies and
timidities or ignorance of former years can be
corrected and a good subject redeemed from inade-
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 21 1
Immediately after his return he painted another
^^Eoek of Ages" and a Crucifixion ^^It is Fin-
ished/' and presented them to St. Mary's House,
Sewanee. Then ^^The King of Truth," the thorn-
crowned Christ in purple robe, seated.
Besides these there were many sketches and
As the end of the year approached it seemed to
admonish him of the rapid flight of time and his
own shortening days and limit for action, and the
pressure and speed were increased.
In a letter to Mr. Hyde (Dec. 8), after enumer-
ating the various works produced during the year,
he says : ' ' There seems continually in my mind the
resolution: 'I must work while it is day,^ How
do I know that my strength or life will last very
much longer ? And, having only a limited measure,
solemn duty requires that I crowd it with work to
the utmost. My big room is comfortable. You will
not have to be informed, by an obituary in the
papers, that an old artist with sluggish circulation
and more persistency than prudence was found one
cold day frozen to an icicle in his too large studio.
^*0n the contrary, that same persistent individ-
ual proposes and expects to do a huge amount of
work during the winter months and in spite of the
It may seem strange to the reader that little is
given in this narrative except the ^^work" done,
but what else could be told of one whose life was
spent in toil? Friends he had and visited, and a
few came to his studio, but in these days, except to
a very few, he seemed to grudge the time consumed.
212 A VISION REALIZED
Some little recreation and exercise lie allowed him-
self, and persisted in riding Ms ** wheel" in spite of
former mishaps and repeated warnings.
He came to his meals after the bell had been
rmig several times and he had also been sent for
and told the bell had been rung, and after the meal
was over it was always the same ^'Well, I must get
back to my work." He read much, but his mind
ran in a rut. He saw in the doings of the world
only signs of the approaching ^'end of the Dispen-
sation," and became almost morbid on the subject.
It seemed to him that prophecy was rapidly being
fulfilled, and in his reading of current literature he
searched out only such things as pertained to that
The last work made in 1903 was a duplicate of
^^The Holy Grail."
What was done with this painting is not known.
During these last years he became very secretive
and often when he disposed of a painting, i, e,, gave
it away, he would say nothing about it even to his
The first thing attempted in 1904 was the paint-
ing of ^^The Death of Saul," or *^The Judgment of
King Saul," from 1 Samuel 31: 36. This was an
old composition, made years ago in pencil, which
work he describes as "a, veritable specimen of
laborious exactness and rigid classification of for-
mer years." This is 31 by 53 J inches in size and
painted in four tints only, from reddish brown to
ivory black, and giving the impression of a mono-
Then from his easel came in rapid succession
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 213
'^Faithful unto Death,'' ^^His First Going to Jer-
usalem," ^^Abel, the Proto Martyr," *^ Supper at
Enunaus," and numerous landscape and animal
To Mr. Hyde he writes. May 1 :
^'You know how secluded we live, and myself
more than my family, the 'Den' in which my
work is done being my field of toil and conflict;
a kind of fate impelling me to work on while
the opportunity is given and do my very best,
never at rest until means as well as knowledge
compel a halt.
''With that spirit driving me on, you need not
wonder that yesterday I have again been at the
'Final Harvest,' taking out dimness of color and
shadows and introducing more light and clearness
and brilliancy of tint as it becomes a subject which
reaches forward to where the glory of eternity
illumines. In consequence the picture has, since
you saw it, risen miles above the thick atmosphere
we mortals must breathe, and, as to a comparison
with the old canvas, it is simply a smoke-begrimed
affair not to be mentioned."
One of the landscapes, "A Storm-tossed Vet-
eran," is worthy of mention. A most picturesque
old chestnut tree, lighted by the evening sun, behind
it a storm cloud sinking away, and a piece of rain-
bow ; on one side a yellow grain field with the grain
shocked upon it, in the foreground a large limb
freshly torn from the tree.
On July 5 the following formal acknowledg-
ment of his gifts to the University of the South
were received :
214 A VISION REALIZED
"University of the South,
"Sewanee, Tenn., July 5, 190 J^.
"Eev. J. A. Oertel, D.D.,
"Rev. and Dear Sir : I have the honor to transmit to you
a copy of a resolution passed by the board of trustees at its
" 'Resolved, That the thanks of the board are hereby tendered
to the Rev. J. A. Oertel, D.D., for the valuable paintings during
the past year presented to the University, placing us under
renewed obligations to our venerable friend for his many valuable
gifts to the University.^
"I am, dear Doctor, with great respect, very faithfully yours,
"Jas. G. Glass,
''Secretary of the Board of Trustees/'
It is to be regretted that for lack of space more
extracts from his letters can not be given, especially
those written to Mr. Hyde, to whom he was wont to
express his ideas on art and religious subjects more
fully than to anyone else, as, for instance, when he
''Our art has been for such a length of time wild
and wayward experiment, the chasing after the
novel and strange, that solid advance on lines of
truthfulness has been impossible. The fever con-
dition can only be followed by exhaustion. The
high-pressure tension cannot be kept up for ever.
It will wear itself out. Art, to grow and improve,
must have contemplative repose.
''In this matter also I believe the point of crisis
has been nearly reached and experiment has ex-
hausted itself. To my judgment magazine illustra-
tions are a fair and quite infallible proof of decline.
Straws show which way the wind blows.''
The last work finished this year was a subject
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 215
that had waited over 30 years for him to have the
time to give it expression, ''The Church Militant, '^
a canvas 41 by 64 inches. The Israelites on the
holy war, the Conquest of Canaan, Joshua leading,
priests with the sacred trumpets, Judah with the
banner, insignia the lion and a star, Benjamin,
Dan, and others. The Shekinah, overhead, the light
of the picture.
Early in 1905 he presented a painting to ''Dr.
Bernardo's Homes, National Incorporated Asso-
ciation for Eeclamation of Destitute Waif Chil-
dren," London, England, but neither his record
nor letters from the secretary of the association,
acknowledging its receipt, state what it was.
Then came "The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus."
"This," he says, "is painted with a palette of great
simplicity, having only a touch of yellow in it in one
spot. It has a sleepy light, a different sentiment
from others of my pictures, for why should not the
color key correspond as much with the inherent
character of a painting as form, action, and expres-
In the evening he spent much time in carving
and made two lions carved in oak for the episcopal
chair of Bishop Leonard, of Ohio.
Next came "Moses, with Aaron," invoking the
plagues over Egypt; not the plague of darkness
only, as in the monochrome formerly painted. The
background was changed from the dark sky to Pha-
raoh 's palace and relieved the figures dark against
the light, giving increased power and more mystery
and suggestion. Of this he writes Mr. Hyde :
"Another added to the many unsalable can-
216 A VISION REALIZED
vases? Yes, indeed; well I know it. But what
can a mortal do against Fate? I am doomed—
or honored— to paint unsalable pictures, as my
namesake (Simon) was to preach an unpopular
doctrine of repentance to ^Scribes and Pharasees'
many centuries ago. Not only so, but verily there
must be attached a secret sign, or a smell, or other
warning, to my pictures ; that a believer, a ' Chris-
tian dog' has painted them, lacking the prophesied
^Mark of the Beast' (Rev. 13: 16-17), and so they
are persistently unsalable.
''Yes, you know your old friend is a quite head-
strong heretic with the world, in sharp antagonism
with her ways, and, what is more altogether uncon-
trovertible, to her modes of though and action.
''I think we might as well give up the effort to
bring his pictures into market, be they religious,
landscape, or animal, for all are stamped with a
seal the world flatly refuses to acknowledge as cur-
rent in her dominion.
''It is evident that my work, whatsoever its
merit, is prevented from a display in the great
exhibits of the world, and my name from taking
a place among the lauded ones and honored by
"Let us drop all further effort in that direction.
With a thousand thanks for your willing kindness
and inquiry, relinquish further attempts."
The above was written after an offer to loan the
"Ezekiel" to the National Metropolitan Museum
in New York had been refused.
In August he made another visit to Sewanee to
varnish the big pictures, and then returned to his
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 21 7
studio, revising previous works and going on wifh
new ones. Among those revised were *^The Twelve
Apostles," each on separate canvas, destined for an
altar piece for the chapel of the theological depart-
ment at Sewanee, the center being a crucifixion
with the words underneath— ''We preach Christ
crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the
Greeks foolishness, but to them that are called, both
Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the
wisdom of God." ''This," he says, "is a constant
admonition to the students who worship there what
is the purpose of their future calling."
Pictures were now piled all about him and
stacked in rows against his walls, and yet he worked
on. At times the humorous side of this struck him
and he would joke about it. One of his letters to
Mrs. Oertel at this time is written on a sheet of
paper headed "Treasury Department," and he
adds "of pictures, Vienna, Va.," and then he
says: "The above is a description of a rightful
title, or a fiattery, according to one's personal
view of the place from whence this is written
"If money alone is treasure, or jewels, or other
goods valued for their money's worth, then this
poor room of mine has a low money standard
indeed. However, if my canvases were valued like
that of Chase's dead codfish, then I added only
yesterday about $400 worth to my collection by the
painting of a bunch of grapes. In the twilight last
evening the painting could not be distinguished
from the model alongside."
November 3 he reached his eighty-third year,
218 A VISION REALIZED
but with health and vigor he kept steadily on. On
this day he said :
^'Another birthday! and a most memorable one.
Is it on a down-grade, as the world thinks ; or an
up-grade, toward the golden portal of life ever-
^'Why not rather take the quick-fleeting years
in the latter sense?"
In December he was called to Bel Air, Md., to see
about an altar, reredos, and credence table desired
by the people of Emmanuel Church to harmonize
with the pulpit and lectern he made for that church
while living there.
For the sake of serving the Church his resolu-
tion to do no more mechanical work and elaborate
carving was broken. He never cared to do that
kind of work, as it consumed so much time, and
less thought could be expressed than on canvas.
He was asked to give advice and make designs for
the work. ^'AU very well and easy for me, to be
sure," he writes, ^^but who that is competent would
carry out my designs for less than a mint of money,
and such a ^mint' the donors do not have, nor would
be willing to spend. What, therefore, remained?
Why, plainly that I make the articles myself."
And so it was that at this age he once more
plunged into the laborious task of constructing and
carving in wood.
The credence table was first undertaken. On
this he worked from early morning until late at
night, as he wrote, ** cutting or knocking chips from
solid oak in the fashioning of an elaborate credence
table ; grapes and wheat grow from hard wood two
Emmanuel Church, Bel Air. Md.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 219
inches thick, in many places cut clean through.
Lamb and Geissler furnish no such carving, except
perhaps for a mint of money. But then 'this 'ere
child' is under the dominion of a different prin-
ciple." This table is an elaborate structure some
7 feet high and 2 wide, of oak and cherry, deeply
carved and all put together by his own hand.
This was work which should not have been un-
dertaken at his time of life and with failing
strength and sight, but no work was ever too
arduous for him to undertake if he deemed it right
to do so, and once undertaken it was pushed with all
the energy and strength of his nature.
So with this, he was ''up and at it" at 6 a. m.
and far into the night could be heard the strokes of
his mallet as he "cut away what should not be
"Were you ever a slave to your work^" he
asks. "It is now my experience. This mechanic
labor can not be done but by steady application,
especially in the hands of an amateur, for I am no
better. It is strange that I should have been led to
undertake so much of it. But it was almost exclu-
sively for churches. All I have now to do has come
to me unsought, therefore, how could I reject it?
Doing God's work is not only painting religious
pictures. He is truly served by anything that can
in good conscience be done in His name, as Luther
has it when he speaks of a pious servant girl labo-
riously scrubbing the floor. Were it not so, small
comfort would there be for the Christian drudges
the world over!"
As he proceeded, this task become more and
220 A VISION REALIZED
more irksome. He longed to get back to his easel,
and during the first months of 1906 he aged per-
ceptibly. It was impossible to make him talk of
anything cheerful. He could only see the signs of
the *^last times" and the terrible consequences
which were to f oUow.
It was the same story which has been repeated
with every piece of woodwork he had ever done,
very easy to make the elaborate design, but the work
it was going to take to execute it not considered. In
June there came to him the great trouble of his life ;
the one who had stood by his side through aU the
struggle of life and had been his help, his comfort,
his adviser and critic, who had encouraged and
cheered where the way was darkest, and rejoiced
with him when success crowned his efforts, his wife,
was stricken with what from the first was known to
be a fatal illness, though she lingered for many
This blow came when he was in no condition to
bear it. Physically he had gone down under the
strain of carpentering and carving 10 and 12 hours
daily for nearly 7 months, yet he did not spare
himself but kept up the pace set until the work was
completed— the last of July. No sooner was his
room clear of this work than he began painting on
a canvas some 7 feet in length by 3 feet high, '^The
School of the Prophets," the design and color
sketch of which were made in Florida. This, '^The
Sun of Righteousness Arising," *^ John the Baptist
as a Young Man Watching," and several land-
scapes were completed before the end of the year.
In the meanwhile, November 8, he received a
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 221
letter from the Eev. Wyllys Rede, D.D., dean of the
Cathedral at Quincy, 111., saying that it was in-
tended to place therein a memorial reredos and if
possible he would like to have him undertake the
He replied telling of the 7 months of laborious
work on the Bel Air reredos, and of his renewed
resolve not to do any more of the kind, being now in
his eighty-fourth year. ''But," he says ''here
comes your letter. Should I positively declined'
At first he seriously considered accepting the work,
but was forced to the conclusion that he was no
longer able to accomplish so great a task.
However, in his reply to Dr. Rede he suggested
that while he could not do the work he could make
the design. He told him of the "Final Harvest,"
which would make a suitable center piece, and sent
a rough sketch of what in his judgment would be
suitable as framing. This design included plans
for the other paintings, the Christ above "The
Final Harvest," "the representative apostles of
Jew and Gentile on either hand," all to be life size.
"This," he says, "I could do, insuring to the whole
absolute unity of design and character."
His offer as to compensation for all this was
characteristic. Of the sum they had set apart they
would pay for the woodwork and he would take
what was left, "not for my own but for my chil-
dren's sakes." Thank God at this time he did not
need it— but he must still give.
Soon after his eighty-fourth birthday he began
painting "The Burial of Moses." This repre-
sented the train of angels coming flying through a
222 A VISION REALIZED
defile in the mountains, Michael leading the proces-
sion—the body of Moses supported by four angels,
our Lord holding the head— The Law buried by the
Gospel. This, he believed, would be his last work.
Ever since coming to this country certain numbers
had ruled and reoccurred with unvarying regular-
ity, the numbers 4 and 7 especially so. The belief
that important changes would occur on these
periods w^as as strong in his mind as that the sim
would rise and set at the proper time. '^ Three
times already," he writes, "a period of 7 years
in one place have happened, the fourth comes to the
full next spring. Seven years since I moved from
Bel Air and began work in this room. The seven
years in it will not, it is my belief, be exceeded;
something will happen to fit these seven years to
my former singular experience. What? I know
not, but a change I look for.
*^My own labors in carrying out God-given ideas
are coming to a close. I am now painting ^^The
Burial of Moses." I have no plans beyond that.
Moreover, my health, so wonderfully good for the
last 20 years is giving way, and no medical treat-
ment has effected any betterment. Am I not to
conclude that my days on earth are near the even-
ing hour, that it were best to put my house in order,
and indeed I have begun doing that."
He was confident that the mystic seven would
not be broken, nor was it, though the ^^ change"
was not what he expected. He was buried in his
work and his mind filled only with it, and perhaps
it was for this reason he could not see the change
which was soon to come and which others could
REREDOS IN THE CATHEDRAL, QUINCY, ILL.
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 223
see was impending. Mrs. Oertel was slowly
sinking; bright and cheerful on her bed of pain,
she was still the light and life of the house as
she had ever been. Her mind was still bright
and active, a marvel to all who saw her; but it
was only too evident to every one but him—
that the end must come soon.
The design for the reredos at Quincy and the
*^ Final Harvest" were sent on late in December
(1906) and on January 3, 1907, Dr. Rede wrote him
to proceed with the other three paintings.
This seemed to rouse him from the morbid con-
dition of mind into which he had drifted ; even his
physical condition improved, and he began to work
with all his old time dash and vigor.
The central (top) picture was about completed
by the last of January. ''It was not an easy sub-
ject to treat becomingly," he says; ''the Saviour on
clouds receiving the fruits of His Redemption from
the harvest field, the Holy Spirit above Him in the
blaze of light coming from the Father, invisible
above, but suggested strongly as a Presence ; while
on either side the suppressed light is filled with a
multitude of adoring angels."
In the midst of this work came the looked for
' ' change ' ' of the seventh year. It were best to take
his own words to describe this, and its effect on him.
To his friend "Edward" he wrote, February
"First of all may I not have your forgiveness
for the seeming neglect of letting you know at once
of the departure to heavenly mansions of my dear
wife on Wednesday, February 6, at 10:30 a. m.
224 A VISION REALIZED
She was laid to rest in the cemetery the day fol-
^^You know she had been ill since June of last
year ; * * * it was a case of final wearing out and
we buried a veritable skeleton. Under such condi-
tions how could we be anything but thankful when
at last came the release ? On the day of sepulture I
myself was so ill that to venture out of the house to
the church and burial I dare not, so they carried the
body to its resting place without me. * * * Of course
the face of nature has changed for me. We have
been companions so long. Her departure seems
imreal— difficult to take home— and I have had to
go over the fact so often in answering letters of con-
dolence; the story was stamped deeper with each
^^Tet I am looking at the bereavement from the
upper, the skyward side. It is not depressing to
me, but the opposite. The will of my Lord and
master is the best. I understand the conditions of
human life, know the Christian's promises, believe
in the eternal God's faithfulness. What more is
needed for perfect consolation? Not the dream of
a doubt is there ever in my heart— and therefore I
travel on. Only a short piece of road will bring us
to the same entrance into Paradise. * * * In a
strange manner I feel the ground from under me,
as it were, moving away. The present physical
world seems shifting and changing the relation of
things, and the spiritual makes up the real sub-
stance—a present reality."
Indeed it seemed that the ^ Apiece of road" would
be short He was very ill on the day of the f imeral,
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 225
and the doctors gave no hope of his recovery, be-
lieving that a week at most would see the end.
Instead of this he improved, and when some days
later his son, Dr. T. B., left for his home in Augusta,
Georgia, he went with him. It was hoped he would
remain there some time and rest ; but he could not,
would not rest. The fire was still burning, the sun
still shone, and, while it was yet day, he must work.
The life in Augusta was new to him ; he cared
not to meet strangers or to make friends. He had
lived so long in the seclusion of his studio in the
coimtry with his works around him that it had be-
come his life, a part of himself. He must return to
it to spend his remaining days— work in it so long
as strength permitted and die in harness.
He would not even wait to announce his coming
by letter; no, he must go at once, and go he did,
sending a telegram saying only *'I have left Au-
gusta; home to-morrow."
When he returned his condition was such that
it did not seem possible for him to do any work, but
he went at once to his studio and was soon hard at
it again, and began at the same time to improve in
health and spirits. He could even joke— as in writ-
ing of the sale of an animal picture he said: ^^He
carried away a pair of Devon steers, giving me only
a piece of paper with his name signed. I was will-
ing to make the exchange, for that kind of oxen may
some day come back to me on another canvas when
the price of beef goes up/'
The pictures for the Quincy Cathedral were
finished, ^^ Christ in Glory," 4 by 6 feet, the central
piece for the top of the reredos, and ^^St. John the
^26 A VISION REALIZED
Evangelist'' and ^^Mary the Virgin," each 2 by 7
feet for the side panels.
After this he contented himself with painting
small figure pieces, landscapes, and animals of
which some 25 or 30 were made by midsummer.
The only important works produced during the rest
of the year were two figures on separate canvases
18 inches by 3i feet 6 inches of ^^The Saints John."
These w^ere painted for his son, to be presented to
the Grand Lodge A. F. & A. M. of Virginia, and
they now hang in the Temple at Eichmond.
The family now was scattered, only himself and
son Fred remaining at ^^The Roost," and as his son
was absent all day at business his time was spent
alone in his room painting, reading, and writing.
The idea that the ^4ast times" were rapidly ap-
proaching was uppermost in his mind and in every
letter— in fact every conversation— it was the
To what it may point is of course a matter of
opinion, but certainly he saw clearly the general
demoralization of the world and society. '* When I
glance over the newspapers from day to day," he
writes, '4t does appear to me that the condition of
mankind is rushing up with positive madness to the
climax point of moral corruption and absolute god-
lessness, page upon page being filled with accounts
the very names of which leave a smirch upon the
*^How can a race handling such literature re-
main pure and in unsullied godly frame? Moral
corruption receives such constant food. To me no
stronger argument is needed to prove we are com-
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 227
ing to the final ^dumping point'." What would he
say to-day, and what have been the effects of this
literature upon the mind and heart of the American
public ? Was he not right ^
Repeatedly he said he would never again under-
take any large work, but as spring came on (1908)
he repainted ''It is Finished" and later, when a call
came from a church for several large canvases he
undertook the work and went at it as he might have
done 20 years before. These were for a church in
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, ''Christ and Moses," the law-
giver of the new and old dispensations.
They were over life size and much of them had
to be painted while standing on a ladder. They
were painted in 24 days and when his son expressed
surprise at the progress from day to day he said :
"I ought to be able to work fast after over 70 years
of experience." No place seemed to be touched
twice. Every brush full of paint went on where it
should be the first time, and the work grew while
one gazed. It was the hand and brain of the Mas-
ter. In a letter written for the Providence, R. I.,
library early in 1909, his son said :
"Since the completion of these works he has not
attempted anything of special note, and, by reason
of failing strength, perhaps never will, but the un-
failing courage and tenacity of purpose have won
and though the years of youth and manhood were
passed without the accomplishment of his 'life
work,' it was at last done, and the message he
wished to leave the world is before it. Now he lives
among his many paintings and studies which crowd
his large studio— satisfied— and only waiting for
228 , A VISION REALIZED
the call, and to hear the 'Well done, thou good and
faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy
''Few indeed there are who could say as he did,
'I have accomplished all I had planned to do.' The
amount he did do was prodigious, and it is almost
unbelievable that one man could have accomplished
so much. Only the more important works have
here been mentioned, not including the hundreds
of animal, landscape, still life, portraits, and
marines or steel engravings and drawings on
wood which at various periods consumed much of
His record of works produced during the years
1854 to 1909 (nine years no record kept) shows a
total for the 46 years of 1,183 major works.
He worked in all branches of his profession,
steel engraving, drawing, modeling, carving in
wood, and painting in oil and water color, and in
each executing with equal facility landscapes, ani-
mals, figures, marine, and still life. "But,'' as he
said, "why not?" If the knowledge, and ability to
execute one form, why not others ?
As to his landscapes, Halsey C. Ives, standing
before one of them in the Nashville studio, said:
"If George Innes had painted that it would be one
of his best." In animal painting his work was
often classed with that of Eosa Bonheur and
Landseer; his figure pieces, both as to composi-
tion and form have few equals; in his marine
paintings, of which he made less than of any
other class, note the power and beauty of "After
the Struggle, Peace," and in still life is to be
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL. D.D. 229
seen a close attention to detail and most deli-
cate handling of color.
In a letter to the Sunday Post in 1884 Charles
"It is now about 20 years since I expressed the opinion that,
in the higher characteristics of art, Mr. Oertel was without a
peer in the United States, and that opinion remains unchanged.
It was founded on his rare abilities as a draftsman; his con-
summate knowledge of the human form ; his powers of grouping
figures in large numbers and thereby depicting ideal scenes
teeming with thought and instruction, and his thorough knowl-
edge of color.
"His skill in portraiture is also unusual; and his gifts as a
painter of animals are simply marvelous. It has seemed to
me, indeed, while looking through his portfolios, that there was
no end to the variety of his studies, all of them teeming with
beautiful thoughts and always betokening a most lofty purpose.
Sunday Post, 1884, Washington, D. C.
This *' knowledge of the human form/' it may
be said all form, was truly remarkable. In the
execution of all his complicated figure pieces he
never used a ^' model.'' Once in a while he would
call his wife or one of the children into the studio
and pose them for a short time and, as he said, the
glass often served him ; but save for this, models he
had none, nor needed them. In carving as well as
painting he needed no copy ; grapes, wheat, flowers,
foliage and even figures cut in the round, came into
being with no guide whatever save perhaps a few
charcoal scrawls when first cutting into the wood.
He was a terse and thoughtful writer and an
impressive and forceful speaker. His lectures and
sermons bear evidence of careful study and
230 A VISION REALIZED
thorough knowledge of his subject. His language,
spoken or written, was always carefully selected
Although playing an important part in his life
his work as a clerg^^man was subordinate to his art,
or, it may be said, a part of it. His services in that
capacity were so far as possible a free gift, and
would have been entirely so but for the stern neces-
sity of making a living for self and family. Even
where compensation was accepted there is no in-
stance where it was not returned tenfold in artistic
In his book ^'record of works produced" no
special one is mentioned for the year 1909 although
he was busy for the first eight months ; instead is
'^Some of my previously painted pictures, set
aside as completed, I have taken up again to work
over more carefully, correcting and strengthening
many parts, so that the pictures become practically
new ones and so the time given was usefully spent.
^'But the confession has to be made, now in my
eighty-seventh year of life, I do, after all, not work
any more with the same dispatch as in the earlier
times. There is more deliberation, less hurry, more
critical severity than in former times, and so the
works show no decline and in certain respects they
are more deliberate. Thanks to God for all His
help to the old man. May He in His grace receive
my humble offering. "
This is the last entry made in the book. His
work was done.
He saw but few people this last year, and did not
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 231
go out at all except on Sunday evenings, which he
often spent with Prof. Edwin Wiley and his wife
at their bungalow near by. They were his best
friends, knew of his aims and the work of his life,
and to them he could talk on art, literature, and
religious subjects, feeling himself understood and
appreciated. Toward the last his mind failed ; he
could not remember faces or names, at one time
even mistaking his son for Professor Wiley. Only
a few weeks before the end Bishop Alfred Harding,
of the Diocese of Washington, to whom he had ex-
pressed his desire to present certain of his works
through him to the cathedral being built in Wash-
ington, came out to see them. When informed of
the Bishop's coming he did not realize for what
purpose and asked, ''Does he hold service here to-
day T' However, he dressed and went to the studio
to meet him.
Once there among his cherished works all trace
of bodily or mental weakness seemed to leave him
and he appeared transfigured. His face shone as
with a celestial light as he showed each picture and
explained its meaning. Those present who knew
his physical condition looked on in wonder and awe.
His body and mind were incapable of the action dis-
played ; it was his spirit, his soul that now spoke
and moved among them; and when he stood with
bowed head to receive the blessing of the bishop
they almost expected him to be caught up to meet
his Master as he had believed he might be— so ut-
terly unlike a thing of earth and so ethereal and
angelic did he appear.
After the bishop had gone he did not remember
232 A VISION REALIZED
his visit, and soon relapsed into Ms former semi-
By Ms expressed request three large paintings
were later presented to the cathedral at Wash-
ington— ''It is Finished," ''The Burial of Moses,"
and ' ' The Church Militant. ' '
He lived now only in the past, speaMng daily
of his old friends, his father, brother, wife, and
always ending with "They are all gone; it is time
for me to go ; I am ready. " So he patiently awaited
the call of the Master he had served so long and
faithfully. It came December 9, 1909.
On the night of the 8th he slipped and fell,
breaking his hip. The shock was more than his
weakened condition could bear, and after a few
hours he lapsed into unconsciousness and passed
away quietly, just 24 hours after the accident.
And now the story is told. The aim has been to
give history and description rather than criticism,
and the object to set before the reader a Christian
artist, a painter of ideas; always a good draughts-
man and rich and fertile in composition, he later
became a good painter, though he scorned the affec-
tations of the fasMon of the day and adhered to
solid and substantial work. His aim was too honest
to permit Mm to descend to artistic tricks by wMch
to draw attention to his doings. If his works are
received at all it must be for their intrinsic merit
first, because of what they say to the heart and soul
of the beholder; and second, because technically
they are full of conscientious study. And it must
be that when vague impressionism and trifling
decorative art has had its day these works of noble
LIFE STORY OF REV. J. A. OERTEL, D.D. 233
purpose will find an appreciative public and have a
strong hold upon the affections of the true lover of