by Sally Cohen
In 1946, when delegates from 51 nations convened for the first time as the United Nations, a West Mt. Airy artist was there to capture the momentous occasion. On view at Woodmere Art Museum from March 30 to April 28, the exhibition “The Promise of Peace: Violet Oakley’s United Nations Portraits” focuses on this important series of portraits, shedding light on a significant moment in our history: when peace among nations became a worldwide political priority. “The Promise of Peace” is part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts 2013 (PIFA).
One of the giants in Philadelphia art history, Oakley (1874-1961) was an independent, self-described “pilgrim seeking peace” who achieved great success in a male-dominated profession. These stately portraits showcase Oakley’s lifelong dedication to the promotion of peace and world harmony, and are among the most historically significant works in Woodmere’s collection. Works include a portrait of Trygve Halvdan Lie, the first Secretary General of the U.N., among other representatives from China, France, Haiti, India, Iran, Lebanon, Mexico and Poland.
Oakley was the first American woman to receive a public mural commission. During the first quarter of the 20th century, she was renowned as a pathbreaker in mural decoration, a field that had previously been exclusively practiced by men. Oakley excelled at murals and stained glass designs that addressed themes from history and literature in Renaissance-revival styles.
Oakley was commissioned to paint a series of 43 murals in the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg for the Governors Grand Reception Room, the Senate and the Supreme Court. In the 14 reception room murals, Oakley depicted the story of William Penn and the founding of Pennsylvania. She conducted extensive research on the subject, even traveling to England.
The series of murals was unveiled in the new Capitol Building in November, 1906, shortly after the dedication of the building. The mammoth project took Oakley 16 years to complete. She also painted “Great Women of the Bible” murals for the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown and “David and Goliath” for the library at Chestnut Hill Academy.
Oakley received many honors throughout her life including an honorary Doctorate of Laws Degree in 1948 from Drexel Institute. In 1905, she became the first woman to receive the Gold Medal of Honor from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Oakley and her two friends, the artists Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Willcox Smith, were named the “Red Rose Girls” by Howard Pyle, a legendary illustrator at Drexel Institute. The three female illustrators received this nickname while they lived together in the Red Rose Inn in Villanova from 1899 to 1901.
In 1905, Ms. Oakley and three other woman artists were urged by Dr. George Woodward, developer of Chestnut Hill, to come to the Chestnut Hill area to live and work. As a result, the “Red Rose Girls,” along with Henrietta Cozens, moved to a stately home at 627 St. George’s Road in West Mt. Airy, just off Allens Lane, that they named Cogslea after their four surnames (Cozens, Oakley, Green and Smith).
Cogslea was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 as the “Violet Oakley Studio.” The studio was originally part of a farmstead on Creshiem Creek. The barn building on the property was built around 1815 but was rebuilt and modernized for the four female artists.
Along with the exhibition, Woodmere will host more than 15 special events capturing the essence of the mid-1940s, in partnership with PIFA: the museum’s Friday Night Jazz series, including “Peace Treaty: Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong” (April 5), “Hope for the Future: Bebop and Jazz of the 1940s” (April 12) and more; the April lecture series “Advocates for Peace,” including a talk by Ambassador Joseph M. Torsella (April 15); and Tuesday night movie screenings of “The King’s Speech” (April 2), “North by Northwest” (April 16).
Also on view at Woodmere this March, “Charles Searles: A Focus on the Figure” (March 25-June 15) is a focused investigation of Charles Searles’ early works that showcase the acclaimed African-American artist’s interest in the human figure, including portrayals of his family, images inspired by some of the urban characters he encountered in Philadelphia and his nude model series.
In addition, at the Helen Millard Children’s Gallery, “Inspired: Works by Students from Plymouth Meeting Friends School” (March 17-May 5) displays artwork by students who were inspired by the creativity of various cultural communities.
Woodmere Art Museum is located at 9201 Germantown Ave. Admission to special exhibitions is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, and free for students, children and museum members; exhibitions in the Founders’ Gallery and Helen Millard Children’s Gallery are free. Woodmere also offers free admission on Sundays.
For more information, visit woodmereartmuseum.org or call 215-247-0476.