The Great Wonder: Violet Oakley and the Gothic Revival at Vassar
Violet Oakley (1874–1961) was a pathbreaking American artist and social activist during the first half of the twentieth century. Her eloquent narrative paintings, colorful stained-glass designs, and otherworldly book illustrations conveyed morally uplifting messages for audiences in New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere in the United States. Between 1922 and 1924, Oakley executed a monumental, Gothic-revival painting called The Great Wonder: A Vision of the Apocalypse for the living room of Vassar College’s newly built Alumnae House. The artist also designed and furnished the living room in a medieval style, creating a peaceful yet visually stimulating environment which the Vassar community and visitors enjoy to this day.
Drawing on the rich holdings of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and Vassar’s Special Collections Library, this exhibition features drawings, watercolors, illustrated books, and other objects that illuminate Violet Oakley’s original decorative scheme for Alumnae House. These artworks reveal how the painter developed the dynamic composition of The Great Wonder and designed even the most intricate details of its architectural setting. Oakley’s talent for creating a total artistic environment is evident not only in this undertaking – her only surviving interior-design project – but also in the elaborate medieval pageant she orchestrated for the dedication of Alumnae House in June 1924. Considered alongside The Great Wonder and the Alumnae House living room, the objects on display attest to Oakley’s creativity and dedication to inspiring others through highly original visual means.
This exhibition was curated by Professor Christopher Platts and the class Art 218: The Museum in History, Theory, and Practice in spring 2020.
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The Great Wonder
The large-scale triptych, The Great Wonder: A Vision of the Apocalypse, among Oakley’s most mystical and inventive compositions, was created at the height of her creative powers. Its format echoes Italo-Byzantine altarpieces, with a central devotional image flanked by smaller related narrative scenes, while its subject is drawn from St. John’s Book of Revelation. A monumental semi-clothed woman at center is set against a star-filled sky, described in Revelation 12:1 as “a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon at her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” She raises above her the man-child she has birthed, “who was to rule all nations,” saving him from the red dragon below who threatens to devour him, lifting him up “unto God and his throne.” The flanking panels depict other scenes from Revelation: at left, The Seven Golden Candlesticks, The Book Sealed with Seven Seals, The Seven Angels with Seven Trumpets; and at right, The Mighty Angel with the Little Book, The Rider upon the White Horse, and The Old Serpent Cast Out. Oakley’s dramatic focus on the female figure emphasizes redemption rather than Revelation’s apocalyptic destruction, and suggests a spiritual allegory of divine feminine power.
While the plan was initially to create a mural, Oakley shifted to the more unusual altarpiece format. She further extended her work to encompass the entire room where it was to be situated, convincing the architects and donors of Alumnae House to allow her to furnish the space. Her design for the room reflected the Italian trecento (fourteenth-century) style of the altarpiece, a period that was distinct from the Tudor style of the architecture but which had special significance for Oakley. Her own living and working spaces emulated the idea of artistic unity of this era, seen by some as a period when Christian spirituality and art were especially intertwined. Taking inspiration from her visits to Palazzo Davanzati in Florence, an early Renaissance palace that was restored and opened as a museum in 1911, Oakley designed patterned beams and shutters (painted by her former students Edith Emerson and Carolyn Haywood), and purchased antique furnishings in Europe, including an Italian refectory table, Savonarola chairs, English choir stalls, candelabras, and other antiques.
The triptych serves as a memorial to Oakley’s sister, Hester Caldwell Oakley Ward (1871–1905), who was a member of Vassar’s class of 1891. Hester’s roommate Louise Lawrence Meigs commissioned the work, which she subsequently offered as a gift from the class of 1891. The subject was chosen from some of Oakley’s earlier sketches from 1916. (Many preparatory works on paper now belong to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.)
Violet Oakley's Studio
Violet Oakley drew inspiration from diverse sources and artistic traditions. An early twentieth-century photograph of the painter in her Philadelphia studio shows Oakley surrounded by replicas of Italian Renaissance paintings and furniture as well as examples of early Chinese and Japanese ceramics. From 1913 if not earlier, she visited New York galleries to study Asian painting and read catalogues about Chinese art. A sixteenth-century jade belt buckle, the delicate, twisting forms of which suggest a dragon biting its own tail, is an example of the kind of art that may have indirectly spurred Oakley’s studies for the dragon in the central panel of The Great Wonder. Similarly, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian drawings in the medium of red chalk, like the Loeb’s sketch of an Old Man with his Walking Pole, likely inspired Oakley to use the same historical medium in her preparatory studies for the triptych. Finally, the work of renowned book illustrator and art teacher Howard Pyle (1853-1911), who Oakley studied with at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, also served as a model for the young painter. The cover of Pyle’s Story of Sir Launcelot and his Companions (1907) shows the hero having saved the people from a dragon, much as Oakley’s powerful figure in The Great Wonder protects her son from an evil, earthbound creature.
Oakley also conceived an elaborate pageant for the dedication: Torchbearers wearing specially designed costumes led a procession with a Shakespearean blessing sung before the ceremonial opening of the triptych, creating an immersive experience through her art.
To contextualize the work’s esoteric themes, she created an illuminated manuscript with passages from Revelation to accompany the triptych (now in Special Collections), and published an explanatory pamphlet before the triptych’s unveiling. Oakley expressed her lofty sentiments about the impact the work might have on the Vassar audience: “The Great Wonder. . . unveils the high idea of Woman and the offspring of her own labours…May it serve to lift up Every-Woman who contemplates it…nerving her to bring to light—without fear—the child of her innermost yearning.”
Living Room, Alumnae House
Sally Mills, Violet Oakley: The Decoration of the Alumnae House Living Room (1984)
Sally Mills, “What the Triptych Means: The Vassar Art of Violet Oakley,” Vassar Quarterly (Spring 1984)
Patricia Likos Ricci, A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance (2018)
Bailey Van Hook, Violet Oakley: An Artist’s Life (2016)
We would like to extend our thanks to Amy Laughlin, Tom Hill, Ronald Patkus, Allison Unruh, Bart Thurber, and Patricia Phagan for their assistance in making this exhibition possible.