American Art · Exhibitions · Women in the Arts

Violet Oakley at the Woodmere Art Museum

Violet Oakley the Man and Science
Violet Oakley’s “The Man and Science” panel, originally installed at the Charlton Yarnall House in Philadelphia (1910-1). Now at the Woodmere Art Museum.

I learned about the Woodmere Art Museum’s exhibition on Violet Oakley from DailyArt Magazine only a few days because it was about to close. Fortunately, the Woodmere is close enough for me to make a day trip on the second-to-last day of the exhibition. (It closed on January 21st.) When I arrived, I found out that a talk about the artist was going to begin momentarily. What great timing! I had a few minutes to look at some of her works before going into the main rotunda to hear the talk. It was standing room only, so the museum let some of us sit on the balcony. It was actually a pretty good seat. Afterwards, I walked around the museum to see her works.

Violet Oakley (1874-1961) was an American artist who participated in the so-called American Renaissance, a period of great American artistic achievement from about 1876 to 1917. It included both the Aesthetic and Arts & Crafts movements. Oakley started out as an illustrator but later became most successful making large-scale murals, designing stained glass, and doing other site-specific commissions. She’s most famous for the elaborate mural cycle on the history of Pennsylvania’s founding at the Pennsylvania State Capitol.

Violet Oakley roundel 1
Violet Oakley’s “The Child and Tradition” painting (1910-1), originally installed in the Charlton Yarnall House in Philadelphia. Its surrounded by several other panels from the same house. Now at the Woodmere Art Museum.

Some things I learned about Violet Oakley during the lecture

  • She was born in New Jersey to an art-loving family. Her sister became a writer. They eventually moved to Pennsylvania, which is the place she’s most associated with. The Woodmere’s mission is to showcase Philadelphia-area artists, and Oakley certainly fits into that perfectly.
  • She studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under Cecilia Beaux. I was excited to learn this, because I really enjoyed writing about Beaux for Daily Art Daily only a few weeks ago. Oakley seems to have been influenced by Beaux, and she followed in her footsteps by becoming PAFA’s second full-time female professor.
  • She also learned illustration from Howard Pyle, who may have been her single biggest influence.
  • Oakley was really into the sisterhood of female artists. In fact, she and a few of her friends swore off men and formed a girls-only artists colony called the Red Rose Inn instead. She was also involved in the Plastic Club for female artists in Philadelphia.
  • She was very religious, which is easy to see in her work. She was into Christian Science, which was quite popular at the time, and helped design a Christian Science church. She was also a civic and social activist, but the talk didn’t mention any specific examples of her activism.
  • She and her life partner, Edith Emerson, lived together openly as a couple long before this was something people really did. Emerson was an artist, too, and her portrait of Oakley can be seen below. Emerson was also a prior director of the Woodmere.
  • She didn’t like modern art but did enjoy modern dance and music.
Violet Oakley portait by Edith Emerson
Edith Emerson’s portrait of Violet Oakley. Date unknown. Woodmere Art Museum, Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania.

I was so excited to see all this interest in the work of a non-famous female artist. It was particularly appropriate, I think, that the talk was given on the 98th anniversary of her membership in the National Academy of Design on January 20, 1920.

Violet Oakley lecture self portrait
Violet Oakley’s self portrait of 1919. National Academy of Design, New York. She submitted this for her National Academy membership, which she received on January 20, 1920.

Her Art

The exhibition showed a great many of her works. The entire museum was basically filled with her paintings, examples of her illustration work for periodicals, lots of her preparatory sketches for commissioned works, her stained glass and mural designs, some large-scale panel paintings, and even a set of massive roundels she painted for a private home. There was also a room dedicated to her Pennsylvania capitol murals, with large photographs of some panels, preparatory drawings and paintings, and a video about the murals. If you put on the headphones provided, you can even hear a recording of Oakley herself speaking about the project.

Violet Oakley Shakespeare panels
Violet Oakley’s designs for Shakespeare-themed stained glass windows at the Gibson residence.

My favorite work in the exhibition was probably the Shakespeare panel (shown above), which was a design Oakley made for stained glass windows in the Gibson residence. Her background in illustration is clear in its strong and striking forms. In all her works, the main story is clearly legible even from a distance. Almost all of her works have a very strong medieval or Renaissance flavor. In fact, a few of her religious triptychs and panel paintings in elaborate wooden frames could almost be remarkably well-preserved examples of medieval art. Her knights, angels, and Shakespearean maidens also share something with the Pre-Raphealites, who were mentioned in the lecture as having an indirect influence on her. However, her work has none of the sentimentality and in-your-face morality of the Pre-Raphealites.  I appreciate that greatly about her. Many of her works are religious – in fact, she received several important church commissions – but even those don’t feel like they’re hitting you over the head with their message.

Violet Oakley triptych
A beautiful religious triptych by Violet Oakley. Like most of her other work, it’s striking, legible, and spiritual.

About the Woodmere

Woodmere Art Museum
The Woodmere Art Museum, in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania.

I intended to write a review of the Woodmere Art Museum, but since the Violet Oakley exhibition took up almost the entire space, I have no idea what the place is usually like. The Woodmere is an Italian-style Victorian house in Chestnut Hill, a suburb of Philadelphia. It reminded me of Chateau-sur-Mer on the outside, but the interior has been completely converted into traditional museum galleries. All the exhibitions have to go with Philadelphia-area artists. The museum is in a lovely neighborhood and has free visitor parking steps away from the entrance (which filled completely for the talk). There’s a small gift shop. It cost me $15 to get into the museum and talk; I believe it would have cost $10 for plain admission ($7 for seniors; children and students free). The galleries – there were about eight – are lovely spacious, but I’m not sure if they’re all handicapped accessible.

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