by Stacia Friedman
Through contemporary eyes, it may be difficult to fully appreciate the radicalism inherent in “A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance” at Woodmere Art Museum through Jan. 21, 2018. But if you look closely, you will see that every mural, painting, portrait and stained glass window reflects the artist’s passion for world peace, racial equality, women’s rights and economic and social justice. Add to that her 40-year relationship with fellow artist and Woodmere curator Edith Emerson, and you have a woman who fearlessly defied her time and society’s conventions.
In 1905, when Violet Oakley was commissioned to paint a frieze in the Governor’s reception Room in the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, she was honored, but as a Victorian woman, she knew where she stood. Her fee was a fraction of the amount paid to Edwin Austin Abbey, who had been commissioned to create murals for the State Senate and Supreme Court Chambers. When Abbey died in 1911, they offered Oakley his commission at a much lower rate. At a time when women did not have the right to vote, Oakley dug in her high button boots and demanded equal pay. She got it!
Overall, Oakley painted 43 murals at the State Capitol. She was the first female artist to receive a large commission for adorning a capitol building in the U.S. This was the first of many glass ceilings the artist broke on her way to becoming the greatest muralist of her day, a field that until her arrival had been dominated by men. A Christian Scientist, feminist and socialist, Oakley expressed her convictions of pacifism and women’s rights through her work.
Born into an artistic family in Bergen Heights, NJ, in 1874, Oakley studied art in England before coming to Philadelphia to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). She then studied with renowned illustrator Howard Pyle at Drexel University. Oakley had early success selling Pre-Raphaelite-influenced illustrations to magazines, including Harper’s, Women’s Home Companion, Colliers Weekly and The Century.
Following Oakley’s murals for the Pennsylvania State House, she was in demand by the rich and famous. When the owner of Colliers discovered that his “illustrator” was an acclaimed muralist, he commissioned her to create stained glass windows for his opulent Manhattan mansion. (Take advantage of the video and headphones in the Woodmere rotunda that document this breathtaking masterpiece.)
Philadelphia banker Charlton Yarnall wasted no time commissioning Oakley in 1911 to create a series of murals for his mansion at 17th and Locust Streets. Titled “Building the House of Wisdom,” these monumental murals are considered to be among Oakley’s greatest achievements.
But it is Oakley’s local connection that strikes a special chord. After living in Center City and Villanova, she moved to Mt. Airy in 1905 at the urging of her friends, Gertrude and George Woodward. A standout in the exhibition is Oakley’s 1921 portrait of Henry Howard Houston Woodward, the Woodward’s oldest son who was killed in the First World War.
Oakley’s studio and home on St. George’s Road, known as Cogslea, was originally part of a farmstead on Cresheim Creek with a barn dating back to 1815. The barn, house and carriage house were rebuilt in the Arts and Crafts style by architects Frank Miles Day and Charles Z. Klauder. They included an enormous studio, 50 by 50 feet with a 24-foot high ceiling. This was the home that Oakley shared with Emerson for 40 years until Oakley’s death in 1961.
Oakley’s partnership with Emerson was more than a love story. It was that rare synergy of two brilliant, talented individuals whose support of one another eclipses what either could have achieved on her own.
Emerson, like Oakley, was born into a family of artists. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and PAFA, where she studied mural painting with Oakley. Emerson was awarded two scholarships, enabling her to travel across Europe, after which she returned to Philadelphia to become Oakley’s studio assistant and move into Cogslea. Naturally, they painted each other. Emerson’s “Portrait of Violet Oakley,” an impressionist painting shimmering with light, is positioned directly across the main corridor from Oakley’s “Portrait of Edith Lecturing,” as if their conversation has no end.
Oakley was a driving force in the life of Woodmere Art Museum and a support to Edith Emerson, who was the museum’s director from the early 1940s through 1978. Emerson, with the encouragement of Oakley, formalized Woodmere’s mission to celebrate, collect and interpret the art and culture of Philadelphia.
More than an artist, Oakley was also an architectural and industrial designer, writer, civic leader and advocate for world peace. When the U.S. did not join the League of Nations after World War I, Oakley took on the role of diplomat, traveling to Geneva, Switzerland, where she spent three years making portraits of the assembled delegates, many of which are in Woodmere’s collection.
In addition to the exhibition, Woodmere is offering some exciting experiences, including a tour of Violet Oakley’s murals in the State Capitol building in Harrisburg on Oct. 27 and a visit to Oakley’s murals at the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown on Nov. 1.
For more information, visit www.woodmereartmuseum.org.