This fall Woodmere Art Museum will present a large-scale exhibition of the work of Violet Oakley (1874–1961), the first in over three decades. The exhibition will focus on the artist’s public commissions, which are rarely seen because of their fixed locations in civic buildings, churches, schools, and private residences. Studies for these commissions, including designs for stained glass windows and mural sketches, will provide an opportunity to see the range of Oakley’s fifty-year career. Curated by Dr. Patricia Likos Ricci, Associate Professor of the History of Art and Director of the Fine Arts Division at Elizabethtown College, the exhibition will document Oakley’s extensive contributions to Philadelphia institutions and the “American Renaissance” revival. The exhibition will highlight the network of artists, architects, designers, and patrons who played a role in bringing Oakley’s work to fruition.
Oakley was renowned as a muralist, stained glass designer, and illustrator during the American Renaissance, a period of cultural renewal following the Civil War. She achieved international fame as the first woman to be awarded prestigious government commissions for the Pennsylvania State Capitol and the Cuyahoga County Courthouse. In the spirit of civic humanism, she painted murals and portraits, and designed stained glass, altarpieces, book and magazine illustrations, medallions, seals, posters, and pageants that contributed to the artistic life of Philadelphia and the nation. She became the second woman appointed to the faculty of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Later in life, she fashioned a diplomatic role for herself to promote international government and world peace at the League of Nations and the United Nations.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website
Whether or not you go, Violet Oakley: An Artist’s Life is the first full-length biography of Violet Oakley (1874–1961), the only major female artist of the beaux-arts mural movement in the United States, as well as an illustrator, stained glass artist, portraitist and author. There is much human interest here: a pampered and spoiled young woman who suddenly finds herself in near poverty, forced to make a living in illustration to support her parents; a sensitive and idealistic young woman who, in a desperate attempt to save her neurasthenic father, embraces Christian Science, a religion derided by her family and friends; a 28 year old woman who receives one of the plum commissions of the era, a mural cycle in the Pennsylvania State Capitol, in a field dominated by much older and predominantly male artists; a woman in her forties who although professionally successful finds herself very much alone and bonds with her student, Edith Emerson; a friend of artists like dancer Ruth St. Denis and violinist Albert Spalding who nevertheless was supremely conscious of social mores, the “Miss Oakley” of the Social Register who preferred the company of upper class to bohemian society; the tireless self-promoter who traveled abroad to become the unofficial visual historian of the League of Nations yet who ironically was increasingly regarded as a local artist.