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Collection Number: 04592

Collection Title: Johannes Adam Simon Oertel Papers, 1868-1883

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held in the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in our reading room, and not digitally available through the World Wide Web. See the section for more information.


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Size 0.5 feet of linear shelf space (approximately 65 items)
Abstract Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, artist and Episcopal clergyman, was born in Bavaria and came to the United States in 1848. In 1851, he married Julia Adelaide Torrey (d. 1907), with whom he had four children. His works include decorations for the ceiling of the House of Representatives in the Capitol in Washington, D.C.; "Rock of Ages," which was widely circulated in reproduction; and many religious paintings and wood carvings for churches. Oertel served as rector in Lenoir and Morganton, N.C.; Glen Cove, N.Y.; and Emmorton, Md.; and briefly operated a sawmill in Orange Springs, Fla. From 1895 to 1902, he painted a series of large canvases collectively called "Redemption," which he considered his highest achievement. The collection is Oertel's diary, 386 p., with entries dated 1868 to 1882, and about sixty enclosures from the diary, including some twenty letters to Oertel and copies of letters from him to others, newspaper clippings, and writings, chiefly poems and sermons, by Oertel and others. Among the topics covered in diary entries are the difficulties Oertel experienced in balancing church duties and the creation of religious art; his poverty; his frustration with an art-buying public that appeared to prefer foreign to American religious art and portraits of themselves and paintings of animals to religious art in general; his annoyance with the art establishment in New York and other major centers and with art agents and publishers; his confrontations with church officials in North Carolina and New York; and his difficulties with parishioners, especially in Morganton. In these entries, there is much about Oertel's efforts to make his family comfortable, but little about the activities of individual family members, except for their involvement in the Orange Springs, Fla., sawmill venture. Few friends and acquaintances are named. Two who were involved in his work were William Cullen Bryant, whose poems Oertel illustrated, and Sarah Rebecca Cameron of Hillsborough, N.C., with whom Oertel was involved in an aborted effort to produce an illustrated volume of religious stories.
Creator Oertel, Johannes Adam Simon, 1823-1909.
Language English
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Restrictions to Access
No restrictions. Open for research.
Copyright Notice
Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.
Preferred Citation
[Identification of item], in the Johannes Adam Simon Oertel Papers #4592, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Acquisitions Information
Purchased from Charles Apfelbaum in October 1991.
Sensitive Materials Statement
Manuscript collections and archival records may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information that is protected under federal or state right to privacy laws and regulations, the North Carolina Public Records Act (N.C.G.S. § 132 1 et seq.), and Article 7 of the North Carolina State Personnel Act (Privacy of State Employee Personnel Records, N.C.G.S. § 126-22 et seq.). Researchers are advised that the disclosure of certain information pertaining to identifiable living individuals represented in this collection without the consent of those individuals may have legal ramifications (e.g., a cause of action under common law for invasion of privacy may arise if facts concerning an individual's private life are published that would be deemed highly offensive to a reasonable person) for which the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill assumes no responsibility.
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The following terms from Library of Congress Subject Headings suggest topics, persons, geography, etc. interspersed through the entire collection; the terms do not usually represent discrete and easily identifiable portions of the collection--such as folders or items.

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Johannes Adam Simon Oertel (1823-1909), artist and Episcopal clergyman, was born in Furth, Bavaria, the son of Thomas Friedrich Oertel, a metal worker, and Maria Magdalena Mennensdörfer Oertel. Early in life, he dedicated himself to the church and began studies with a Lutheran clergyman, expecting to become a foreign missionary. In the course of his studies, however, he apparently revealed such talent for drawing that his teacher urged him to study art. He became the pupil of J. M. Enzing Müller, an engraver, with whom he spent some time in Munich.

In 1848, Oertel came to the United States and settled in Newark, N.J., where he was soon joined by his parents and two brothers. Oertel's brother Thomas Frederick was also called Fritz. In Newark, Oretel gave lessons in drawing, and, in 1851, married Julia Adelaide Torrey (d. 1907), with whom he had four children: Mary Magdalena (b. 1852), called Lena; John Frederick (b. 1856), called Fritz or Fred; Samuel Philip, who was born and died in 1859; and Theodore Eugene (b. 1864), called Eugene. In the winter following his marriage, Oertel made sketches for a series of four large paintings illustrating the concept of redemption. Thereafter, he looked upon the completion of these paintings as his life work. For the next fifty years, Oertel struggled, usually with little success, to earn enough money to keep his family sheltered and fed and himself out of debt to framers and suppliers of artists' materials so that he might pursue the "Redemption" project.

From 1852 to 1857, Oertel made steel engravings for banknotes, painted portraits, and even colored photographs. In 1857 and 1858, he designed the decorations for the ceiling of the House of Representatives in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. For a few months in 1862, he lived with the Army of the Potomac, gathering material for several war paintings. In the 1860s, at Westerly, R.I., he painted a picture first called "Saved, or an Emblematic Representation of Christian Faith," which came to be widely known in reproductions as "Rock of Ages." A large number of photographs and lithographs of this work were sold, bringing the publisher a handsome income in royalties. Because of errors in the copyright papers, however, Oertel only shared in profits from "Rock of Ages" for the first few years of publication.

Oertel had been confirmed in the Episcopal Church in 1852, and, at Westerly, occasionally acted as a lay reader. In 1867, he was admitted to deacon's orders. Two years later, he moved to Lenoir, N.C., where he assumed charge of a rural church and two mission stations and founded a school for girls. In 1871, he was ordained as a priest. He remained in Lenoir until 1876, and then lived in New York City; Glen Cove, N.Y.; and Morganton, N.C. In each of these places, he tried to combine art with ministry. After serving as rector in Morganton, he spent a year in Orange Springs, Fla., this time trying to combine church and art work and the business of running a sawmill. Having failed in all three ventures, he returned to Lenoir and then lived for various periods in Washington, D.C.; Sewanee and Nashville, Tenn.; and St. Louis, Mo., where he was instructor in fine arts at Washington University from 1889 to 1891.

The last eighteen years of his life were spent near Washington, D.C. For a while, he took charge of the church at Emmorton, Md. In 1895, his sons finally having relieved him of the necessity for gaining a livelihood, he began at last to paint the first picture of the "Redemption" series, which he called "The Dispensations of Promise and the Law." This painting was followed by "The Redeemer," "The Dispensation of the Holy Spirit," and "The Consummation of Redemption." The last of these paintings was completed in 1902. Reluctant to break up the set of four, Oertel declined a $10,000 offer for "The Dispensations of Promise and the Law." He later gave the series to the University of the South, from which he received the D.D. degree in 1902. After this, he lived with his son in Vienna, Va., where he painted prolifically. In 1906 and 1907, he produced the paintings and designed the woodwork for the reredos of the Cathedral at Quincy, Ill. He died in Vienna at the age of 86.

While serving the church and teaching, Oertel always considered religious art his chief vocation, and his paintings and ecclesiastical wood carvings were his principal means of support. Many times, however, financial considerations forced him to abandon religious art for painting portraits and pictures of animals, which were usually more profitable.

Known chiefly as an excellent draftsman, Oertel sometimes painted in monochrome, although, in his later years, he made good use of color, especially in the "Redemption" series. His paintings are to be seen in churches in New York City; Glen Cove, N.Y.; Lenoir, N.C.; St. Louis, Mo.; Jackson, Tenn.; Emmorton and Belair, Md.; and Washington, D.C. In many instances, these paintings are accompanied by the elaborate wood carvings Oertel also produced. Among his many carvings, an especially notable work is his altar and reredos for the Church of the Incarnation in Washington, D.C.

(This biographical note is based on the note in the Dictionary of American Biography, Volume XIII.)

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This collection consists of Johannes Adam Simon Oertel's 386-page diary, 1868-1882, and about sixty enclosures from the diary, including some twenty letters to Oertel and copies of letters from him to others, newspaper clippings about his acquaintances and on art and religious themes, and writings, chiefly poems and sermons, by Oertel and others.

Oertel began the diary in Tarrytown, N.Y., on 30 December 1868 and ended it in Orange Springs, Fla., on 12 February 1883. In the first entries, he told of his decision to begin a new life in Lenoir, N.C., and his hope that the large sales of reproductions of his painting "Rock of Ages" would put an end to his poverty. Thereafter, in extremely introspective entries often covering three or four pages and written about once or twice a month, the story of Oertel's life over the next fifteen years unfolds.

Oertel described the seven years spent in Lenoir, during which time he was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church and had charge of a rural church and two mission stations, and where he and his wife founded a school for girls. Later entries show that he lived in New York City; Glen Cove, N.Y.; and Morganton, N.C. After serving as rector in Morganton and remaining on there as a private citizen for some time, he spent a disastrous year in Orange Springs, Fla., where he tried to combine church and art work with the business of running a sawmill. Having failed in all of these ventures, he concluded the diary with a vow to return to his studio in Lenoir and dedicate himself to religious art.

Among the topics covered in diary entries are the difficulties Oertel experienced in trying to make a living from religious art, which led to constant fretting over his indebtedness; his frustration with the art-buying public that appeared to prefer foreign to American religious art and portraits of themselves and paintings of animals to religious art in general; his annoyance with the high-handedness of the art establishment in New York and other major centers and with art agents and publishers; his dealings with Episcopal church officials, including his attendance at church convocations, particularly in North Carolina; and his difficulties with parishioners, especially in Morganton, where, after his tenure as rector, he led a rebellion against the church elders.

In these entries, there is much about Oertel's efforts to make his family comfortable, but little about the activities of individual family members, except for documentation of their suffering because of his inability to provide for them. There is also little mention of the activities of friends and acquaintances who were not directly involved in Oertel's work. Two who were involved in his work were William Cullen Bryant, whose poems Oertel illustrated, and Sarah Rebecca Cameron of Hillsborough, N.C., with whom Oertel was involved in an aborted effort to produce an illustrated volume called The Prophets of Israel.

Throughout his life and throughout the diary, Oertel suffered and lamented. Through it all, however, he appears to have remained true to several basic ideas. Of greatest importance was his belief in the goodness of God and the importance of faith. He was also convinced that religious art was his destiny and constituted his reason for being. Further, he frequently expressed the conviction that it was not only possible but desirable to combine art and service to the church, even though he acknowledged that jettisoning one or the other obligation would almost certainly guarantee food on the table. For Oertel, abandonment of either his art or his religious duties was simply not an option, and the diary shows that he survived the consequences of this decision through his trust in God and in his own mission.

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Contents list

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expand/collapse Expand/collapse Series 1. Diary, 1868-1883.

1 item.

Diary of Johannes Adam Simon Oertel covering the years 1868 through 1883, during which time he was active as a priest in the Episcopal Church and as a painter of religious art, portraits, and animal pictures in Lenoir and Morganton, N.C.; New York City and Glen Cove, N.Y.; and Orange Springs, Fla. A general description of diary entries appears below.

30 December 1868-26 March 1869 At Tarrytown, N.Y., Oertel wrote of his excitement at the prospect of beginning anew in Lenoir, N.C., where he hoped that he would be able to help the ...fearful Institution of the Southern States; his preparations for the move; his having been a minister for one year; and his hope that profits from the large sale of reproductions of his painting Rock of Ages would put an end to his poverty.
31 May 1869-11 December 1870 At Lenoir, N.C., Oertel wrote of his church work, including his efforts to increase participation among townspeople and his initiation of services for blacks; his frustration with the conservatism of the church in North Carolina; his beginning to paint and build a studio; his finishing the illustrations for William Cullen Bryant's Waiting by the Gate; the work of the Vatican Council, which was meeting in Europe and discussing the doctrine of papal infallibility; and the conduct of the Franco-Prussian War.
10 August 1871-31 December 1872 At Lenoir, Oertel wrote of his becoming fully ordained; his frustrations with the people of Lenoir, with the North Carolina diocese, and with the American art-buying public, which, he wrote, was ... not to be counted on. Not merit or demerit, but chance fixes a man's reputation here. He must fit the public taste; his distaste for illustration, preferring to be free to express his own thoughts on canvas; and the moderate success of his two mission schools.
25 January 1873-31 March 1873 At Lenoir, Oertel wrote of his anger at the lack of sales of the Bryant prints and frustration with mounting debts; his publisher's recommendation that Oertel's paintings be sold at auction to cover his debts; the bold piracy resulting in his loss of the copyright to Rock of Ages; his descent, as he saw it, into painting pictures of animals, which he hoped would be more lucrative than religious art; and his plan for a trip to the Amazon to gather material for future paintings.
15 April 1873-5 November 1873 At Lenoir, Oertel wrote of his waffling on the Amazon trip because of financial difficulties and church obligations; his continued dissatisfaction with church officials; trips to Raleigh and Hillsborough, N.C., and Rock Hill, S.C., where he visited a girl who had been studying art with him and with whom he appears to have had a mild, perhaps unilateral, flirtation; his inability to travel due to lack of funds; and his longing for completeness and harmony, which he found impossible to feel in Lenoir.
4 December 1873-7 May 1874 From various places in North and South Carolina, Oertel wrote of poverty forcing him to find a substitute rector for Lenoir and to travel about as an itinerant portrait painter, a position he found repulsive and only marginally remunerative; the coming of a narrow gauge railroad to Lenoir; making wood carvings and other decorations for churches; social life in various North Carolina communities, especially in Charlotte, where he made little money, but many friends; and general ruminations on good and evil.
18 May 1874-5 July 1874 From Wilmington and Charlotte, N.C., Oertel wrote of attending the diocesan convocation and the general value of meeting periodically with peers; his acknowledgment of the worthlessness of his claim to the copyright of Rock of Ages; and his love for Wilmington, N.C., and distress at the prospect of returning to itinerant portrait painting.
13 July 1874-16 November 1864 From Lenoir, Oertel wrote of his decision to resign his rectorship and his actual resignation; his execution of a rare commission for an animal painting; his journey back to Wilmington to attend a meeting, where the conflict between the supernatural and the materialistic was discussed, and to fill in for the rector there; his enjoyment of painting in Wilmington and his sadness of having to be away from his family; and his decision not to send his works to auction because of the stagnation of the art market.
13 December 1874-24 June 1875 At Greensboro, N.C., Oertel wrote of his dissatisfaction at having to resume his portrait painting career; giving up the school he and his wife had started in their home in Lenoir and contemplating breaking up the household; meeting with Sarah Rebecca Cameron in Hillsborough to discuss the joint production of an illustrated book to be called The Prophets of Israel; his decision to put off traveling to Europe; sending son Fritz (later called Fred) to the University of the South; visiting at Peter Hairston's plantation in Stokes County, N.C., and doing portraits there; traveling and painting portraits in the Yadkin Valley, N.C.; failure of his auction in New York City, at which he made only $1,113.94 for twenty paintings that should have brought twice that amount; his decision to do large painting for the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and his need to return to the studio in Lenoir to paint it; and his general despondency: Wherever I turn, failure and disappointment.
18 July 1875-27 August 1876 At Lenoir, Oertel wrote of painting The Shadow of the Rock and sending it to the Philadelphia exhibition; the benefits of exhibiting work to large audiences; the life and the death of his father; Fritz's decision to quit school and go to New York to learn fruit cultivation; quitting Lenoir for good, but not selling the studio; traveling to Raleigh to paint portraits; the end of his strange experience, that of a Parish Priest engrafted upon the Artist; and his decision to go to New York City for a last effort at success.
5 September 1876-31 October 1876 From Irvington and New York City, N.Y., Oertel wrote of his excitement at returning to an aesthetic atmosphere where he could rekindle the sacred fires; his taking a studio in the YMCA Building at 23rd Street and 4th Avenue at the outrageous cost of $650 per annum; his desire to share the studio with a fellow painter named Greene; and his inability to pay the freight for the family's goods that were shipped from Lenoir.
11 November 1876-21 March 1877 From New York City, Oertel wrote of the presidential election, saying that the ouster of the Republicans would be good for the South; his difficulty in retrieving his unsold painting from the Centennial Exhibition; his state of almost complete destitution; his work at the St. Barnabas Mission on Mulberry Street, where, until a permanent pastor was hired, he was engaged to conduct Sunday services at $5.00 per service; his daughter Lena's finding a job at the Leek and Watts Orphan Asylum on 110th Street; the damage done to paintings shipped from Lenoir; his feeling that his family was being held captive by poverty; the sale of the copyright to his painting Charity; sending his son Eugene to school in Glen Cove; and the strangeness of visiting wealthy friends when one is penniless.
15 April 1877-18 July 1877 From New York City, Oertel wrote of religious art as his mission as a Christian artist: My mission ... refuses to yield me bread, therefore, the bread will have to be earned in order to support the mission. It's the old question of body and soul; his decision to support his religious art by to painting animal pictures; and the possibilities of getting work in Glen Cove.
3 August 1877-13 December 1877 From Glen Cove, Oertel wrote of renting a carriage house to serve as a studio; transferring his credentials from the North Carolina diocese to Long Island; placing The Shadow in the Chapter House of the Glen Cove Cathedral; substituting for the regular rector in Garden City, N.Y., where he found parishioners the congregation to be intellectually stimulating and appreciative of his art; the meaning of life and art; the correctness of predictions in the Bible; news from Lenoir that the new rector, having alienated the parishioners, was leaving town; and, just when he was in truly dire economic straits, his election as assistant rector at St. Paul's Parish, a position that offered the prospect of earning a small amount of money.
24 December 1877-12 August 1878 From Glen Cove, Oertel wrote of feeling dejected and poor: For the last fortnight our fire was maintained from borrowed money; his belief that people thought that those in debt show either dishonesty or mental incapacity; his anti-Roman feelings at the death of Pope Pius IX and the election of Leo XIII with the first of many comments on numerology and other mystic systems; his sadness at losing the friendship of a longtime companion over his friend's newly developed religious skepticism; his lengthy negotiations with Garden City church officials about the possibility of Oertel's doing design work for the cathedral; and bittersweet reminiscences on his thirty years in the United States and his determination to concentrate on religious Art in its highest, noblest, and most pronounced endeavor.
18 August 1878-23 April 1879 From Glen Cove, Oertel wrote of his feelings on modern philosophic thought; his children's activities, including Fritz's unprofitable adventures in mining in the West; his own non-remunerative activities; trying to sell The Holy Grail in New York City; giving up his studio in Glen Cove and contemplating a declaration of bankruptcy; son Eugene's being dismissed from school for non-payment of tuition when Oertel thought that a painting had been accepted in lieu of cash; and thoughts of returning to Lenoir where he still had a studio.
17 May 1879-15 September 1880 From Lenoir and Morganton, N.C., Oertel wrote of selling a few paintings in New York before leaving for Lenoir; investigating Asheville, N.C., as a possible place to settle; finding Morganton, N.C., agreeable and immediately buying land there; getting the job as rector in Morganton; the visit of Bishop Lyman to Morganton; travel around North Carolina; building a studio; the death of his mother; his attending church convocations in Asheville and Winston-Salem; submitting a design for a Christmas card contest; finding Morganton depressing: The care of this Parish and Art as a means of living seem incompatible; and his resignation as rector: I know not but of late years especially I seem continually to be living in a crisis.
17 October 1880-22 March 1882 From Morganton, Oertel wrote of the absence of his wife, who was in Lenoir, and children, who were basically on their own, and his decision to remain in Morganton, where his studio was operative, but he had no prospects for paying work; his long battle with the elders of the community about how the church was to be run, which led to the closing of the church for over a year; his starting to get invitations to exhibit in various shows: The outside world seems to take notice again of me as a living artist, whereas for years I appeared to it as good as dead; selling paintings through a dealer in New Haven, Conn.; the assassination of President Garfield; his reading and enjoyment of Carlyle; Lena's engagement to a seminary student (they apparently never married); his desire to go to Italy; holding services in his parlor while the church remained closed; son Fred's (also called Fritz) job with for the United States Fish Hatchery in New Bern; contemplating moving to Florida where Fred thought they might grow oranges; anticipating a new beginning in Florida; and borrowing money to move using paintings as collateral.
29 March 1882-22 June 1882 From Orange Springs, Fla., Oertel wrote of following the suggestion of a friend of a friend to set up a sawmill in Orange Springs; buying land; transferring credentials to the Florida diocese; sending paintings to an Academy show in New York City and having them hung in obscure places; ordering equipment for the sawmill and opening for business with son Fred and another young Morganton man as junior partners; and the arrival of his wife in Florida.
29 June 1882-12 February 1883 From Orange Springs, Oertel wrote of setting up a studio and starting to paint; his feelings about teeth; his belief that different painting techniques were applicable in different situations; Lena's preparing to teach in Florida public schools; religion in general; the failure of the sawmill; officiating at the first Easter and Christmas services ever conducted in Orange Springs; acknowledging that the move to Florida was a mistake and likening Florida to a bitter orange; his feelings toward the Pope and Mohammed; the departure of his sons; selling the sawmill to a blacksmith; and thoughts of returning to Lenoir. The last entry concludes: And so, on the last leaf of this book that contains a record of so many changes in my Beduin(sic) life since 1868, I note down another [change after a] disappointing failure of great and fond hopes.
Folder 1

Diary #04592, Series: "1. Diary, 1868-1883." Folder 1

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expand/collapse Expand/collapse Series 2. Diary Enclosures, 1868-1883.

About 60 item.

Enclosures from the diary of Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, including some twenty letters to Oertel and copies of letters from him to others, newspaper clippings about his acquaintances and on art and religious themes, and writings, chiefly poems and sermons, by Oertel and others.

Folder 2

Correspondence #04592, Series: "2. Diary Enclosures, 1868-1883." Folder 2

Folder 3

Clippings #04592, Series: "2. Diary Enclosures, 1868-1883." Folder 3

Folder 4

Other items #04592, Series: "2. Diary Enclosures, 1868-1883." Folder 4

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Processing Information

Processed by: Roslyn Holdzkom, December 1991

Encoded by: Roslyn Holdzkom, November 2006

Diacritics and other special characters have been omitted from this finding aid to facilitate keyword searching in web browsers.

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