Saturday, October 14, 2017

On the Trail of Violet Oakley

I love this selfie together with Violet Oakley's "Eve at the Feet of Mary", a proposal for a fountain, 1945-49.  It is one of her many wonderful drawings in charcoal and white chalk on brown paper, now at Woodmere Art Museum through January 21, 2018, part of their ambitious retrospective "A Grand Vision:  Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance."

Fellow Dumpster Diver George Felice and I started our Violet Oakley pilgrimage at the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, Philadelphia.

This church contains a ten panel mural frieze, Oakley's last mural series, produced from 1945-49 when she was in her seventies.  It was a collaboration with Edith Emerson, who was first her student, then her collaborator and life's partner.  Here we saw the painting of Eve at the Feet of Mary (according to Dante), that we later saw in the drawing.

 Every panel was signed in her distinctive way:

We especially enjoyed the panel of Eve in the garden:

 George and Eve:

 Me and Eve:

I especially loved her trees over the doorways honoring the women of the bible, including some lesser-known ones.  She was a feminist to the core, even to her theology. 


Even in the panel of Mary Magdalene washing and annointing Jesus' feet, the woman feels more central than Jesus himself, and is painted with more tenderness and sense of personality.

We couldn't leave the church without looking at the spectacular stained glass in the main sanctuary.  Some of it is by Tiffany, although I'm not sure about this one.  Seen on a sunny day at around 11:30 a.m., it is located so that light pours in illuminating the child in an uncanny and mysterious way, that is mesmerizing. 

It was fun to go from the church to the Violet Oakley retrospective at Woodmere Museum, which highlights not only her prolific accomplishments as a muralist, portraitist, stained glass designer, and illustrator, but also her deep civic involvement both in Philadelphia and globally.  When The Plastic Club was formed in 1897 as a place for women artists to meet, exchange ideas, and exhibit their work, Violet Oakley was there from the beginning.  Deeply committed to peace and social justice, her portraits of the delegates to the League of Nations are fascinating.  She achieved international fame at a time before women had the right to vote.

Here is a self-portrait from 1920, submitted as part of her admittance to the National Academy of Design:

Most touching to me was the watercolor portrait of her done by Edith Emerson, her life's partner, in 1952 when Violet was seventy-eight:

Edith was somewhat younger than Violet, and was director of Woodmere Art Museum from the early 1940's through 1978.  They were definitely a 'power couple'!  It was great to learn more about Violet Oakley, as well as about Edith Emerson, in a setting where their relationship was not glossed or whitewashed.



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