Purchase Story

Violet Oakley's Grand Vision

A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance, the exhibition at the Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia, through January 21, 2018, gives new visibility to the depth and range of artist Violet Oakley’s work at a time when narrative and illustration art has a new audience, and women painters are in the spotlight. A bonus is the story of recovering the long-lost panel that completes the mural cycle Oakley had painted in 1910 and 1911 for the Charlton Yarnall house at 17th and Locust Streets in Philadelphia, demonstrating the role of the conservator in what we see on museum walls. The murals, now removed from the house, are in Woodmere’s permanent collection and fill a gallery in the exhibition.


Drawings and an old photograph of the dome designed by Oakley for the Yarnall house survive. A replica has been installed in the house. The dome depicts the head of Wisdom covered in a white veil surrounded by the words “Wisdom Hath Builded Her House.” Wisdom is surrounded by Aurae, the daughters of the Four Winds, drifting around her similar to clouds. The wind’s messages are written on four books resting on the backs of turtles in the border at the circumference of the dome. The East Wind asks, “But where shall Wisdom be found?” The South Wind replies, “Seek”; the West Wind says, “Ask”; and the North Wind, “Knock.” The Wisdom dome is in the form of a compass rose signifying “a moral compass to navigate through life.”

Violet Oakley (1874-1961) is best known for her murals in the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a commission awarded to her in 1902 when she was just 28, the largest mural commission ever awarded to a woman. In 1903, in order to get firsthand experience of Renaissance paintings that had inspired the American mural movement, Oakley traveled to Italy and then to England to research the history of the Quakers in order to tell the story of William Penn. In 1905 when Oakley completed the first six panels for the Governor’s Reception Room, a cycle she called “The Founding of the State of Liberty Spiritual,” illustrating how religious persecution in England led William Penn to establish “a colony based on principles of nonviolence, political equality, and liberty of conscience,” she exhibited the huge canvases at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and won a gold medal.


The Child and Tradition, from the mural series “The Building of the House of Wisdom,” 1910-11. Woodmere Art Museum, gift of the Southeast Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Red Cross, 1963.


Man and Science from the mural series “The Building of the House of Wisdom,” 1910-11. Woodmere Art Museum, gift of the Southeast Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Red Cross, 1963.

In 1909 when architect Frank Miles Day asked her to design murals and a stained-glass dome for the Charlton Yarnall house, she designed a cycle called “The Building of the House of Wisdom”for a young family educating four children ages four to 18. For the Yarnalls’ reception room in their 35-room house, Oakley painted three lunettes illustrating an allegory of the family as the cornerstone of civilization. For The Child and Tradition on the north wall, she painted a fair-haired child resting against his nurse’s knee and listening to a story told by his mother. (It is probable that the mother is Anna Coxe Yarnall, Charlton’s wife.) Confucius comes up from the foundation of the house to observe the early education of the child, and on the steps to the next level stands Solomon, the wise king of the Old Testament. Cicero also appears as the model Roman citizen, and Beatrice leads Dante past the child. In octagonal coffers of the barrel vault above The Child and Tradition, Oakley depicts the development of character as depicted by Hercules. First the hero is depicted as a baby strangling serpents, showing his courage and strength, then as a youth sitting between two mistresses, modest virtue and voluptuous vice. Ultimately, Hercules achieves immortality in a horse-drawn chariot headed for the stars. Oakley, who returned to Europe before starting the murals, obviously borrowed from Peter Paul Rubens and Andrea Mantegna.

In the lunette across from a musician’s balcony, Oakley painted Youth and the Arts. A young man plays the flute, a young girl looks at a book of prints, a girl sings, and another listens to music. Patricia Likos Ricci, the Oakley scholar who wrote the illustrated catalog for the exhibition, points out in her catalog essay that the man at the piano has the hairline and features of Leo-
pold Stokowski, who became the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912. The music theme is echoed in a border of musical scores, organ pipes, and wind and string instruments.

For the Man and Science lunette, Oakley painted a family of several generations on a rooftop in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, the foundation of modern arts and sciences. The family can see that Leonardo da Vinci’s vision of manned flight has come to fruition in the airplane overhead. There is a quotation from Psalm 8, “What is man? Thou art mindful of him…. Thou has put all things under his feet.” The three octagonal panels in the barrel ceiling vault above celebrate man’s success. Communion through Space shows a telegraph office with two women and a man on the wireless; the second, The Search for Light, is a depiction of a scientist holding a book sitting next to a cathode-ray tube and two women behind, all apparently seeking the source of light; and the third, Aviation, shows an aviator and an eagle with the words “They mount up with wings as eagles” from Isaiah 40:3.

For under the dome of Wisdom (described in the caption at right), Oakley designed four pendentives to chronicle the progress of architecture. One features tent dwellers wandering in a desert; another depicts Egyptians lifting ancient stones to build a pyramid; in the third, Michelangelo sits in a great chair in front of a Renaissance dome; and the last, The High Tower, shows a laborer building a skyscraper.

Ricci points out in the catalog that Oakley “showed herself to be a learned painter capable of combining historical references with contemporary imagery in the manner of Renaissance artists without resorting to imitation or antiquarianism.” She took what she needed and made it her own, thus the title of the exhibition, A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance.

The Yarnall murals were well received. In 1911 Oakley was invited to exhibit Man and Science with its view of Florence in the American Pavilion of the International Exhibition of Art in Rome. When she was awarded her second commission to decorate the Senate Chamber and the Supreme Court Chamber of the Pennsylvania State Capitol left unfinished by the death of noted muralist Edwin Austin Abbey, several of the Yarnall images were reproduced in the New York Times under the headline “A Woman Chosen to Complete the Abbey Paintings.”

The “Building of the House of Wisdom” remained in place for 50 years, although the property had several owners. In the early 1940s, the Yarnall house was a branch of the USO, and 20 years later the American Red Cross acquired the building and began converting it to office space. Concern for the murals prompted Edith Emerson, Oakley’s student and life partner, who by then was the director of the Woodmere Art Gallery, to have them removed and given to Woodmere. In an attempt to remove it, the dome fell and was destroyed. A later owner installed a replica fabricated on the basis of Oakley’s drawings.

Edith Emerson was able to acquire 12 of the 13 elements of the mural cycle for Woodmere; only The High Tower was glued in place with a stronger adhesive than Oakley had used for the others, and it could not be taken down. Over the years when the building was used as offices, it was sanded and covered with primer and paint. In 2017, more than 50 years after the first attempt to remove it, the owner of the building, which is now for sale, gave Woodmere permission to extract it.

Conservator Steven Erisoty was given the six-sided canvas, roughly 3' x 4', covered with layers of white and steel blue-gray paint. He tried several solvents, blotted it, and after many days, little by little, the white primer dissolved, allowing Erisoty to pick up loose chips of the layers of paint with a microspatula, a delicate and slow process.

“I got 95% of the paint off, enough to see the outlines of a Michelangelesque figure of a construction worker building a skyscraper,” said Erisoty. “It suffered abrasion from a sander and was ripped at the bottom when they tried to remove in the 1960s. We left the torn bottom—it is part of its history—and I added just enough inpainting so it can be read with the rest of the cycle. Oakley’s voice is clearly there. It reads as her first drawing and has the vital quality of a sketch.”

The breadth of Oakley’s career and the other commissions that occupied her are little known. She continued to work as an illustrator, as did her housemates Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green. (Their teacher Howard Pyle called them the Red Rose Girls when they and another friend, Henrietta Cozens, who maintained their household and gardens, rented the Red Rose Inn in Villanova, Pennsylvania, from 1902 to 1906.) Oakley made portraits of friends and neighbors throughout her career and worked for churches designing stained glass and murals. She did illustrations for Christian Science publications; she joined the church in 1903.

Oakley painted other murals and provided illustrations for programs and designed seals for schools and colleges, including Bryn Mawr, Vassar, and Sarah Lawrence. Dedicated to the idea of peace, she and Emerson attended meetings of the League of Nations in Geneva and the United Nations in New York City, where she drew portraits of delegates. Visitors to the exhibition are impressed by her powerful drawings.

Emerson, who served as a curator and director at Woodmere Art Museum for almost 40 years, saved the Oakley archive. William Valerio, Woodmere’s current director and CEO, writes in the introduction to the catalog, “We imagine that the conversation about the formulation of Woodmere’s purpose was discussed at the Emerson-Oakley dinner table in their home, Cogslea, on Saint George’s Road. ...[Oakley] contributed to the core accomplishments of Emerson’s legacy, encouraging the acquisition of art by women and sustaining focus on representational and narrative artists even after their work was no longer fashionable in the heyday of modernist abstraction.”

Oakley met Emerson when she was her student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and they began living together at Cogslea in 1918. Emerson, her studio assistant and protégée, was the devoted caretaker of Oakley and her legacy. Oakley died in 1961; Emerson lived 20 years longer.

In the 1970s, after art historian Patricia Likos Ricci had interviewed Emerson about Oakley, Emerson invited her to assist with the organization of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation. In 1979 Ricci was asked to write an essay for the Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin that commemorated the Violet Oakley exhibition at the museum, curated by Anne d’Harnoncourt and Ann Percy, held just two years before Edith Emerson’s death.

The catalog for the current and most ambitious exhibition of Violet Oakley’s work at Woodmere benefits from Ricci’s continuing research and scholarship and the work of Woodmere director William Valerio and his entire staff. The catalog can be purchased for $45 at the museum shop at 9201 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19118, or by calling (215) 247-0476.

Woodmere Art Museum is open Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday, 10 a.m. to 8:45 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., when admission is free. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors (55-plus), and free for children and students.

For more information, see the museum website (www.woodmereartmuseum.org).


Originally published in the March 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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