by George McNeely
The Woodmere Art Gallery has recently launched a new program: “The Violet Oakley Experience.” It doesn’t offer any rides, but it does offer an engaging digital archive of the museum’s extensive collection of works by Oakley.
Violet Oakley (1874-1961) might be considered the painter laureate of Chestnut Hill, despite having lived mostly in Mount Airy. From 1905 until her death, she lived with various women friends in a house called “Cogslea” on Saint George’s Road, courtesy of Gertrude & George Woodward. The house, renovated by the Philadelphia architects Day & Klauder, remains today in private hands, overlooking the picturesque Cresheim Valley.
Born into a family of artists, she studied in New York and Europe but then came to Philadelphia to study at both the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and the Drexel Institute (now Drexel University). Here she studied under the famed illustration artist, Howard Pyle, and developed her own personal style.
Both her life and career were groundbreaking, particularly for a woman artist at that time.
She started working as an illustration artist, but in 1902 won the commission for a first group of major murals at the recently completed Pennsylvania State Capital building. She eventually painted a total of 43 murals in various parts of the building over the next 20 years.
It is well worth a trip to Harrisburg to see those murals. They beautifully tell the story of the founding and early history of Pennsylvania.
(Harrisburg of course offers other charms. Don’t miss Edward Austin Abbey’s trippy lunette in the Capital rotunda entitled “The Spirit of Light,” with ghostly figures emerging from the oil derricks of our state’s early petroleum boom. Or the exhibition on the history of the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the nearby State Museum. Highway driving will never be dull again.)
Oakley went on to a number of other commissions, including murals in Philadelphia private houses and churches. The First Presbyterian Church on Chelten Avenue in Germantown features a series entitled “The Great Women of the Bible” (completed 1948). She created engaging charcoal portraits of those attending several major international conferences, including the League of Nations and the United Nations, some of which were exhibited at the Woodmere in 2013. She also painted portraits of friends and clients around Philadelphia and elsewhere, some of which were included in Woodmere’s major exhibition of her work in 2018.
Oakley had strong connections to Woodmere through her longtime life partner, the painter Edith Emerson. They lived together at Cogslea, and Emerson served both as curator and director at Woodmere between 1940 and 1978. It is thus due to Emerson and entirely appropriate that Woodmere has such a large collection of Oakley’s works.
Explore “The Violet Oakley Experience.” It is elegantly designed and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. It offers clear headings and stunning images to enable visitors to investigate the full range of Oakley’s works.
Under “Portraits” is a sub-heading entitled “Mystery Works.” Included are a number of charcoal sketches and watercolor portraits of unidentified sitters. As so many local families commissioned portraits by Oakley, Woodmere invites us to explore those works and try to help them identify the sitters.
Anyone who can first and correctly identify one of those unidentified sitters will receive a gift certificate for $50 to Woodmere’s renowned gift shop. Clear documentation needed!