Born in Kassel, in Westphalia Germany, Jacob Maentel is believed to have trained as a physician, worked as a farmer and mercenary, and served in Napoleon's army as his Secretary in Westphalia. By 1797, he was a portrait painter living near the harbor in Baltimore; his earliest portrait is dated 1807, but little is known of the actualities of his life.
Between 1800 and 1840, it has been documented that he was active in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties, Pennsylvania. But the fact there are no legal documents such as tax records, wills, deeds or birth certificates in those areas is just part of the many mysterious aspects of his life and career.
Maentel and his wife were members of the Evangelical Church, and as followers of the Harmonist Movement, they went to New Harmony, Indiana by 1841, where he farmed and painted, doing numerous watercolor portraits and interior subjects for family members and friends.
The prolific number of drawings Maentel did during his career provides one of the most important records of early 19th-century rural agrarian America that we have today, and his more than 200 portraits are a fascinating documentation of the German migration to, and way of life in, the American Midwest.