By William Valerio
with Patricia Likos Ricci
Philadelphians can claim to own Mother’s Day, for this is the city where the holiday began. In 1908, the first Mother’s Day celebration took place in Wanamaker’s Department Store, and 15,000 people attended — and shopped. It should be no surprise that images of mothers and the idea of motherhood run deep in the work of our city’s artists.
With social distancing, holidays are different, and at Woodmere, we’re planning a different kind of Mother’s Day. Usually our Museum Store offers a Mother’s Day sale of the work of the living artists and makers we feature. Instead, with the Museum closed, we’re going digital, offering a specially curated selection of artist-made gifts on our website, woodmereartmuseum.org/store. The artists will fulfill your order and ship your gift. Because our goal is to support our artists, 100 percent of the proceeds will go directly to them.
In addition, gift certificates to the Museum are available and may be used for classes, events, or future purchases at the Museum Store. Or, consider the gift of a Woodmere membership, which supports the activities of the Museum, and in turn supports Philadelphia’s artists.
Art captures the sentiment of the moment, and so in honor of Mother’s Day, I reached out to my friend, Professor Patricia Likos Ricci of Elizabethtown University, to talk about representations of mothers in art, particularly in the work of Violet Oakley, the artist most extensively represented in Woodmere’s collection:
William Valerio: Patricia, can you tell us about the history of Mother’s Day and its connection to Philadelphia?
Patricia Likos Ricci: Ann Reeves Jarvis (1832–1905) was a social reformer and mother of eleven children who lived in Virginia. She organized “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” to promote public health for families and communities. Her clubs played a role in caring for wounded soldiers of both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War, and her dream was a national holiday honoring the important work of women across all political, religious, and social divides. At the end of her life, Jarvis moved to Philadelphia to be close to her daughter Anna, who was inspired by her mother’s dream. Anna was instrumental in building the coalition that established Mother’s Day as a national holiday and implemented the tradition of white and pink carnations as the holiday’s flowers. Leading figures in Philadelphia industry and commerce took note, among them food processing titan Henry J. Heinz and department store owner John Wanamaker, who hosted the first Mother’s Day celebration in 1908 in the auditorium of his store in Center City.
WV: Tell me about some artists.
PLR: It’s no coincidence that the leading women in American art, who were all Philadelphians, adopted motherhood as a subject in the same years that Anna Jarvis was agitating for the national recognition of Mother’s Day. Mary Cassatt and Cecilia Beaux are well known for paying tribute to motherhood in their paintings. Illustrators Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green actively promoted the idea of motherhood in illustrations that circulated broadly across the United States. The social value placed on motherhood made it an ideal subject to promote women’s rights, especially the vote. Interestingly, most of the women artists known for their depictions of mothers did not have children. Marriage and childbearing were discouraged for professional women.
WV: Let’s talk about Violet Oakley.
PLR: Although Oakley started out as an illustrator, her ambition was to be an artist of grand civic messages. Mothers and maternal figures are important characters in just about all her public murals. She elevates the subject to new heights.
In the murals she made for the mansion of banker Charlton Yarnall in downtown Philadelphia—masterpieces that are now in Woodmere’s collection—Sophia, the personification of wisdom, looks down at the world from the heavens and asks the question: where shall wisdom be found? Oakley provides many answers through a range of symbolic characters but locates the main narrative thread in the mother’s role as educator and spiritual guide of the family. In the opening scene of the mural series, a mother reads to her son from the work of some of humanity’s great authors, such as Dante, Virgil, and Confucius, thereby igniting the boy’s imagination. In the final scene of the mural series, the son has grown to manhood and become a parent. He embraces the wisdom of science, history, and the arts, standing triumphant with his own children and his now older mother. She beams with pride. Oakley acknowledged her mother’s role in her own success by modeling the proud maternal figure after her.
WV: What about Oakley’s murals in the Pennsylvania State Capitol?
PLR: Oakley included maternal imagery in her episodes of American history in the Senate Chamber. In the mural of Lincoln at Gettysburg, she depicts a grieving widow standing with her two children listening intently to Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. American women were appalled at the enormous loss of life on the battlefield and from disease. After the war, Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” proposed an annual “Mother’s Day for Peace” in 1872. Asserting their right as mothers, American women became leaders of the peace movement.
WV: Oakley’s Senate Chamber murals offer a history of the United States that is inspiring, on the one hand, but founded in the violence of the American Revolution and slavery and preserved only through the strife of the Civil War, on the other. She places this history in the global context of racial and gender inequality, enslavement, and—yes—disease and epidemic.
PLR: By coincidence, President Wilson declared Mother’s Day a national holiday in 1914, just a couple of months before the onset of the Great War. These events may have converged in Oakley’s imagination to create a monumental maternal figure of Unity representing international cooperation as the climactic apex of her Senate Chamber murals. Unity, draped in the royal blue of the Madonna, stretches her arms wide, protecting soldiers, nurses, doctors, political leaders, teachers, and ordinary people from all over the world. Oakley was inspired by William Penn’s statement that he would “try what love will do” in founding an egalitarian society in Pennsylvania. Unity offers a sheltering arc of love that has the power to resolve conflict and heal the human body.
WV: The Beatles arrived at the same conclusion: all you need is love! As always, the arts provide the answer! Thank you, Patricia. Happy Mother’s Day, and what would you like from our online store?
William Valerio is Director and CEO of the Woodmere Art Museum.
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