Scholar of Italian renaissance art and Berlin Gemäldegalerie director, 1964-1973; participant in the proposed Führermuseum theft of art object. Oertel was the son of a lawyer. After receiving his Abitur at the Thomasschule in 1927, he studied art history, archaeology, classics and philology at various universities, included Leipzig, Vienna, Munich and Hamburg. He completed his dissertation in 1932 under Hans Jantzen writing on a topic of Masaccio. After a trip to Paris, he worked as a volunteer at the Augustinermuseum in Freiburg. During the 1932-1933 year he received a scholarship to the Biblioteca Herziana from its founder, Ernst Steinmann. He returned to Frankfurt as Jantzen's assistant in 1933, but because of the new courses incorporating Nazi doctrine in the Univeristy, gave up academics for museum work. He volunteered at the Berlin museums between 1933 and 1935 as a research assistant in place of colleagues dismissed for political or racial reasons by the Nazis. Eventually, he attached himself to the reference library, where he came in contact with the Museum's Islamicist, Ernst Kühnel. He studied early Christian art under Fritz Volbach and eventually graphics when the division was under Friedrich Winkler and Willy Kurth. After a 1934 article on Renaissance drawings, Oertel was named to the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, where he served eventually as director between 1935 and 1939. Oertel studied fresco painting, spurred in part of by the worry that these monuments might be damaged in the looming war. He returned to Germany shortly before the declaration of World War II to assist the director of the Dresden Gemäldegalerie, Hans Posse, who was ill with cancer. In addition to his Dresden duties, Posse led the assembling of art works, largely stolen or forced from fleeing Jewish families, for the Führermuseum proposed for Linz, Austria. It was Oertel's job to maintain the registry of the objects. When Posse died in 1942, the Director was replaced by Hermann Voss, under whom Oertel also served. Oertel was called to the army and fought at the front lines in 1944 and spent time in a Russian prison after the war. He was instrumental in reopening the Dresden gallery, after which he moved to Freiburg. He published an habilitationschrift in 1948 on Giotto's post-Paduan style, qualifying him to teach in the university. He became a dozent in 1949, married in 1950, and appointed professor in 1955. Oertel was placed in charge of conservation for the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, part of the Bavarian state museums structure in 1958. After the death of Ordenberg Bock von Wülfingen in 1960, Oertel completed and published that scholar's manuscript on Giotto. He was named chief conservator in 1964. That year he was named Director of the Berlin Gemäldegalerie (Painting Gallery), where he served for the last eight years of his career. He retired to Kirchzarten in 1973 where he resided until his death. Oertel was a renowned authority on Giotto and the early Italian Renaissance. Notes about Oertel's opinions appear in the personal catalog of the 1937 Mostra Giottesca of the NYU renaissance scholar Richard Offner. He disagreed with the drawings scholar Bernhard Degenhart on the range of use of medieval drawings, seeing them as essentially limited to pattern books and models for painting.
Leipzig, Saxony, Germany
Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
[dissertation:] Die Frühwerke des Masaccio. Frankfurt am Main, 1932; Fra Filippo Lippi. Vienna: A. Schroll, 1942; Frühzeit der italienischen Malerei. English, Early Italian Painting to 1400. London: Thames & Hudson, 1968;
Ladis, Andrew. "The Unmaking of a Connoisseur." in, Offner, Richard. A Discerning Eye: Essays on Early Italian Painting. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998, p,19, note 1; Löhr, Hanns C. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung November 2, 2000; [obituary:] Isermeyer, Christian Adolf. "Robert Oertel, 1907-1981." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 45 no.. 4 (1982): 437-440; Office of Strategic Services. Art Looting Investigation Unit. Consolidated Interrogation Report no. 4: "Chief Personalities of the Linz Commission: The Directorate." pp. 18-19. (PRO T 209 29); Woods, Kim, ed. Making Renaissance Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press/The Open University, 2007, p. 26.