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“The Rock of Ages”

Artwork framed and on display in Reverend and Mrs. Brown’s house on their claim.

It “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, sometimes, 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…” – A Vision Realized: A Life Story of Rev. J.A. Oertel, D.D., Artist, Priest, Missionary (1917)

When Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder are waiting in Reverend and Mrs. Brown’s parlor prior to their wedding, Laura notices her surroundings briefly, including the marble-topped table sitting on a crocheted rag rug, and a “colored picture” hanging on the wall, and described as “a large colored picture of a woman clinging to a white cross planted on a rock, with lightning streaking the sky above her and huge waves dashing high around her.” See These Happy Golden Years, Chapter 33, “A Little Gray Home in the West.”

The picture isn’t mentioned in the Pioneer Girl manuscript, nor in Laura’s handwritten manuscript for These Happy Golden Years, but it was included in an edited typed manuscript. There is no way to know if Reverend Brown’s family displayed such a picture, but the story suggests that the artwork referred to was either a print of Johannes A. Oertel’s “The Rock of Ages,” or one of the many similar images produced and sold in the mid-19th century.

Johannes Adam Simon Oertel was born near Nuremberg, Bavaria, in 1823, and he was a gifted artist from a young age. Trained as an engraver, he came to America in 1848. He and his wife, Julia, had four children. Oertel studied painting and made Christian art his life’s work. In his Rhode Island studio in 1867, he painted “Sacred, or an Emblematic Representation of Christian Faith,” soon to be known everywhere simply as “The Rock of Ages.” As his son wrote in the 1917 biography of his father, the artist was seldom associated with his most famous work, and he saw little financial reward: “It has been copied in every possible way, produced in every process, given away as premium 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.’ — A Vision Realized, 66-67.

The story of this famous painting is told in this 1907 article:

CAREER OF A PICTURE. “Rock of Ages” Went Into Homes the World Round. “The Rock of Ages,” that world famous picture, was painted by the Rev. Johannes A. Oertel. The artist, a native of Bavaria, who came to America in 1848, settling in Newark, N.J., first sketched it in the album of a young girl living in Westerly, R.I. It impressed all who saw it, suggesting a small painting of the subject in oil, which he exhibited at the National Academy of Design, New York. This caught the keen eye of a Broadway dealer, who, realizing its commercial value, induced Mr. Oertel to make a large painting, from which photographs were struck off, and one of these falling into the hands of Mr. James of Providence, R.I., he purchased the right of publishing all subsequent copies.

The painting was bought for $1,000 by Augustus Storrs, a Brooklyn merchant, while the run upon the unframed pictures, ten inches high, got out by Mr. James and selling for $5 spiece, was unprecedented in the history of photography, the operators being unable to meet the demand and dealers losing sales from insufficient supply of copies.

Mr. James’ next venture was a chromo-lithograph made under his own supervision in Paris. Passing through London on his way home, he sold three of these chromos for 9 guineas to Mr. Graves, the queen’s bookseller. Upon his arrival in Liverpool a telegraphic order awaited him from this gentleman for thirty additional copies, and on reaching New York he was handed an application from him for the entire edition.

Indeed, phenomenal as was the sale of this creation in America, it was greater abroad. An English nobleman hazards the assertion that in some one of its varied forms it is to be found in every palace and hovel in the island, and a traveler returning from a tour of the World exclaimed: “The picture haunts me. It follows me wherever I go. I have seen it in Chile. I have seen it also in the Pyrenees.”

Two years after the appearance of the first photographs Mr. james had realized as his share of the profits $75,000. Mr. Oertel, too, was in receipt of a handsome income in royalties, and with this assured support (having pursued his theological studies without assistance and been ordained to the priesthood, of the Protestant Episcopal church) he removed in 1867 to Lenoir, in North Carolina, and took charge of a congregation impoverished by the civil war.

Two years later an unauthorized copy of the “Rock of Ages” was got out by a New York photographer.

Mr. Oertel’s publisher sought protection from the law, and the case was carried into the lower and supreme courts of the state. Scarcely had it been decided in his favor, however, when a Chicago artist made a similar design, evading the law by the introduction of a ship in the background and the reversal of the female figure. This threw the copyright open. The monopoly was wrested from its owner and the market flooded with pictures of every size and quality.

Thus as a financial venture terminated the brilliant promise of the “Rock of Ages.” — Irish American Weekly (New York, New York), 3.

The image above shows Oertel at work in his studio, with “The Rock of Ages” on the easel. Below is (L) the painting as shown in Oertel’s biography and (R) the original painting. Horizontal white lines are due to damage to the original painting. The original oil on canvas was acquired in 1895 by The Fogg Art Museum at Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


“The Rock of Ages” (THGY 33)