In glowing, jewel-toned paintings, murals, and stained-glass, Violet Oakley (1874-1961) told stories about the healing powers of faith and the social benefits of civic engagement — allegories that made tangible the restorative powers of art.
Even for the era that formed her as an artist and a woman, artistically she was a throwback, the American counterpart of a British Pre-Raphaelite, if with a suppler style. In terms of her social arrangements, however, she was decidedly a New Woman.
As A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance at the Woodmere Museum in Philadelphia demonstrates, Oakley’s life was as luminous as her art. For while her style may be throwback, its content, the embodiment of Quaker principles of religious, racial and gender equality — not to mention antiwar sentiments — remains pertinent today. The exhibition runs through January 21, 2018.
Violet Oakley was 22 in 1896 when she enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia to study with Cecilia Beaux, the society portraitist and the only female on the faculty. It’s possible that the aspiring painter had heard about the commencement address that scholar Eliot Norton, the nation’s most eminent professor of art, delivered at Bryn Mawr College nearby. Something to the effect of counseling female artists to put aside their own ambitions and follow the calling to which they were most ideally suited, supporting male artists.
Quietly but emphatically proving Eliot wrong, Oakley went on to become one of the most celebrated muralists in America. At first she was the hub of a circle of women who supported each other’s work. Not long after, she set up household with her life partner, Edith Emerson (a former student), with whom Oakley lived openly for more than 40 years.
Between 1897 and 1900 Oakley studied with Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute, gained initial fame as a book and magazine illustrator, completed a mural and stained-glass program at New York’s All Souls Church, and embarked on an ambitious mural cycle in the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg. She also worked with architects to design murals for sacred and domestic interiors, as well as for such colleges as Bryn Mawr, Sarah Lawrence and Vassar. Her mastery of many media made her something of a Renaissance woman. Her significance to the late 19th– and early 20th-century art and architecture movement known as the American Renaissance literally made her one.
The Woodmere retrospective marks the first time since 1979 that this underknown artist has been the subject of a major exhibition. Though she made easel paintings, portraits mostly, Oakley’s site-specific works naturally do not lend themselves to a museum exhibition. To complement the photo reproductions of the Harrisburg murals, Woodmere has industriously rounded up much extant — and portable — work (like the detachable painted decorations for a private home that were taken off its walls when the property was sold) in a manner that feels less like a retrospective than a family reunion.
I hear you asking: If this dame is such a big deal, why haven’t I heard of her? Possible reasons: 1) because she was a woman; 2) because she wasn’t a gallery artist or a society portraitist 3) because most of her commissions were in Philadelphia and Harrisburg; 4) because after World War II her political themes and illustrative work looked passé. Yet in the ‘oughts and ‘teens of the 20th century, her commissions earned more coverage in The New York Times than, say, the work of Mary Cassatt, reckons Patricia Likos Ricci, the art historian who helped organize both the 1979 and current retrospectives.
Like many female painters coming of age before the middle of the 20th-century, Oakley was born into a family of artists. She represented its third generation. Both grandfathers were members of the National Academy of Design. Her mother, Cornelia, studied with William Morris Hunt, father of the American Renaissance. As a teenager, Oakley studied painting in France and at the Art Students’ League in New York. Her father, a successful investment banker, supported her cultural pursuits. She was asthmatic, believed too frail to attend college.
Then came the Panic of 1893, depleting both the family finances and her father’s mental capacities. By 1896 her mother had sold the family home, moving Violet and her father to Philadelphia where the women lived in a boarding house while Mr. Oakley sought treatment from Silas Weir Mitchell, the neurologist and inventor of the rest cure. The cure didn’t take, and her father died soon after. But Oakley took to Philadelphia. She withdrew from the Academy of Fine Art to study illustration with Pyle at Drexel in the belief that magazine work would support her and her mother. Though the door to society portraiture had closed because Oakley’s family no longer had access to the upper class, the door to magazine and book illustration had opened.
Oakley’s fall from privilege easily could have turned her into a helpless figure like Lily Bart, the protagonist of Edith Wharton’s contemporaneous The House of Mirth. Like Lily, the flower-named Violet had enjoyed a life of plenty and now was living in reduced circumstances. Rather than husband-hunt like Lily, who was bred to be ornamental, Oakley devoted herself to art. By the time her father died, she had left the Anglican Church to study with a Christian Science practitioner. The process bolstered both her health and resolve.
At Drexel, where Pyle’s earlier students included Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth, Oakley was one among a number of gifted women, among them Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green. With Pyle’s imprimatur, Oakley and her sister artists enjoyed successful careers as illustrators. Among the magazines for which Oakley worked were Collier’s, McClure’s and Woman’s Home Companion. Her treatment of medieval and religious themes in these images impressed Caryl Coleman of the Church Glass and Decorating company in New York, and in 1899 he invited her to apprentice there. Her work on a window representing the Epiphany won her the commission as principal designer for the chancel — murals, mosaic and stained glass — at All Angels Church at 251 West 80th Street in New York. The commission transformed both her personal and professional life. At last she had the skills for heroically scaled art, as well as the means to move from boarding house to estate house, .
Inspired by artist William Morris to form artistic communes, Oakley, Smith, and Green — plus Oakley’s mother, Green’s parents, and Green’s friend, Henrietta Cozens, in 1902 rented an 18th-century estate, the Red Rose Inn, in suburban Villanova. Pyle dubbed his students “The Red Rose Girls.” The artists worked while Cozens took care of the house and the garden. When the estate was sold in 1906, they relocated to a renovated farm and barn in the leafy Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. They named it Cogslea, an acronym for Cozens, Oakley, Green and Smith. The commune stayed together until Green wed in 1911.
When Joseph Huston, architect of the Pennsylvania State House in Harrisburg, saw the pops of brilliant ruby-red drapery on the white robes of the army of angels in “The Heavenly Host” (1901) at All Angels, he recognized an exciting storyteller and daring colorist. (It didn’t hurt that the New York Herald Tribune praised Oakley’s sacred murals as an “artistic triumph.”)
Her imagery was what Huston was looking for in the State House decorations. He promptly commissioned a mural from her, a panoramic frieze (six feet high and 134 feet wide) for the Governor’s Reception Room, to illustrate the “The Founding of the State.” Oakley went abroad for a year to study frescoes in Italy and the life of William Penn in England in order to tell the story of how the religious intolerance he experienced led him to the New World. Pennsylvania’s pre-history. In the New York Globe, the Philadelphia press, and in the State House itself, Oakley was acclaimed for her “splendid” history paintings. In All Souls and her first Harrisburg commission, Oakley found her artistic calling: The exaltation of religious and political principle. She called it her “sacred challenge,” and contributed murals and stained-glass for many more churches.
She also decorated private homes. While her murals for the Charlton Yarnall house in Philadelphia were secular, they have a quasi-religious feel. In these works, figures gaze heavenwards, as if converted to the religions of music and science, succumbing to their ecstasy and erotics.
When the chief muralist of the Harrisburg State House died in 1911, Oakley received his commissions for the mural cycles in the Pennsylvania Senate chamber and Supreme Court. She couldn’t yet vote (this was 9 years before the adoption of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women’s suffrage), but she sure could paint. She was awarded $100,000 ($2.5 million in 2017 dollars) for her work, which took 16 years to complete.
For the Senate chamber murals, “The Creation and Preservation of the Union” (1911–20), Oakley continued the narrative she had begun in “The Founding of the State,” illustrating how the Quaker principles, particularly those of racial equality and nonviolence, played out in the founding and defense of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. One remarkable panel, “The Slave Ship Ransomed,” represents the story of a Quaker who purchased a ship of enslaved Africans in order to free them in Nova Scotia where slavery was illegal. Treating the Senate chamber as a sacred space, she placed the mural, “Unity,” directly above the rostrum. To the right of the personification of Unity, armies beat swords into ploughshares; to her left, she welcomes African Americans and immigrants into the New Jerusalem.
As it revived the ideals and practices of the Italian Renaissance, Oakley’s art united the fine and the decorative arts. Perhaps more importantly, her imagery united all Americans. If taken in terms of scope, sweep, and political idealism, Oakley’s 43 Harrisburg murals compare favorably to those of her contemporary, Diego Rivera.
While Oakley was executing the Senate Chamber murals, World War I broke out. Her preoccupations — and imagery — turned from nationalist to internationalist. Inspired by the League of Nations and the concept of international law, she conceived her last Harrisburg mural cycle — for the Supreme Court chambers (1912-1927) — as a musical analogy, an octave that begins and ends with the same note. To a non-musician, the murals, with their combinations of images and letters, resemble illuminated-manuscript pages. One, “Divine Law,” looks like a large-scale Marsden Hartley painting. Another, “International Law,” represents the figure of Christ negotiating world disarmament.
In 1927, after she installed this last mural cycle in Harrisburg, she travelled to Geneva with partner Edith Emerson to paint portraits of those involved with League of Nation endeavors. As she got older, the sphere of Oakley’s interests grew progressively larger. In 1945 she painted a mural cycle, “Women of the Bible,” at the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, Pennsylvania, not far from Cogslea. In 1946, she was commissioned by the Philadelphia Bulletin to do a portrait series of delegates to the newly formed United Nations.
Undeterred by health or reversals of fortune, Oakley was a painter, a feminist, a Christian Scientist and citizen of the world.
Can you hear me thinking? Given her life, her public work, and her domestic and sacred spaces, why is Oakley lesser known in the United States than Diego Rivera? You tell me.
A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance at the Woodmere Museum in Philadelphia (9201 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through January 21, 2018.
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