The Great Wonder: Violet Oakley and the Gothic Revival at Vassar

Is this what shows up?

Introduction

Olive M. Potts, Violet Oakley, ca. 1900. Violet Oakley papers, 1841–1981 (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).

For the opening of Vassar’s Alumnae House in 1924, Violet Oakely (1874–1961) created the large-scale triptych The Great Wonder: A Vision of the Apocalypse. Oakley was an American artist best known for her murals and stained glass evocative of the Italian Renaissance. She created the triptych as a memorial to her sister, Hester Caldwell Oakley Ward, a member of Vassar’s class of 1891 who died of typhoid fever in 1905. This exhibition focuses on the numerous preparatory works on paper related to the project now in the collection of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

The Great Wonder: Violet Oakley and the Gothic Revival at Vassar brochure. Click image to browse brochure.

Through this exhibition, viewers can begin to envision this endeavor as it was originally conceived by the artist. Emerging from these preparatory works is Oakley’s creative process as she worked through issues of composition, palette, and design, all in the service of creating an immersive experience through art.

This spring 2021 exhibition was curated by the class Art 218: The Museum in History, Theory, and Practice, taught in spring 2020 by Professor Christopher Platts.

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.

Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. Study for The Great Wonder on an Altar, ca. 1916- 1922. Pencil on paper. Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation; 1982.36.3.
Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. The Woman Clothed With The Sun, ca. 1916. Gouache over charcoal and pencil on board. Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation; 1983.29.10. In this preparatory study for the central composition of Violet Oakley’s The Great Wonder, the painter locates the “woman clothed with the sun” in the center foreground and suggests her muscular physique with fluid brushstrokes. Oakley generated a sense of spontaneity and dynamism through her expressive pictorial technique and vibrant use of color. Short, rapid brushstrokes and dabs of red, yellow, and blue paint create a visual explosion of primary colors, conveying the artist’s unique vision of the so-called Apocalyptic Woman from the Book of Revelation (chapter 12). In contrast to Oakley’s attention to detail and orderly compositions in her other studies for The Great Wonder triptych, the artist’s more energetic work here effectively conveys her idea of female power as well as the capacity of art to be spiritually uplifting force for viewers.
Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. Study for The Great Wonder: Central and Side Panels, ca. 1922-1924. Charcoal and pastel on paper. Purchase, Matthew Vassar Fund; 1980.21. This luminous charcoal sketch is one of several preliminary studies for the center of Violet Oakley’s triptych in the Alumnae House living room. The central composition, as well as the layout for the six flanking roundels, bears close resemblance to the finished painting. The artist’s expert use of charcoal varies from the bright passages encompassing the primary figure to the darkness of outer space. The woman’s pose is dynamic and her figure Olympian, while her clothes flow freely behind her, suggesting her movement heavenward. Below, the coiled dragon spews water at the woman, but she raises herself and her child out of harm’s way. Oakley’s interpretation of the Apocalyptic Woman of Revelation 12 locates the woman in the center of the composition rather than her male child, as was usual in representations of this episode. In her paintings, Oakley often depicted symbols of female empowerment and agency, a theme that characterized the painter’s own life and accomplishments during the first half of the twentieth century.
Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. Sketch for central panel, Study for The Great Wonder, ca. 1922–1924. Pen and ink on paper. Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation; 1982.36.8. This pen sketch is one of Violet Oakley’s earliest preparatory studies for the center panel of The Great Wonder. It depicts a winged woman holding her child aloft amidst circular planets and a dark atmosphere suggested by closely spaced, parallel marks. With its highly expressive pen strokes, this drawing captures the woman’s strength as she protects her child from the earthbound dragon, which appears below as a vague collection of curved lines. Throughout the work, Oakley’s strokes are fluid and dynamic; that there are few details suggests the artist executed the work quickly. The woman’s downturned face is composed of just a few short marks, while her expansive wings are made up of hooked lines and squiggles that suggest feathers.
Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. Study for The Great Wonder: central panel, ca. 1922-1924. Charcoal on tan paper. Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation; 1983.29.9.

Decorative Scheme

Edith Emerson and Carolyn Haywood painting the Ceiling of Alumnae House, ca. 1923–24 (The Violet Oakley Visual Resources Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives).

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.

Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. Design for Decorated Ceiling Beam, ca. 1922-1924. Watercolor over pencil on paper. Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation; 1982.36.48.
Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. Study for Painted Beamed Ceiling, ca. 1922-1924. Watercolor over pencil on board. Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation; 1983.29.19. In this watercolor study for the painted ceiling of the Alumnae House living room, Violet Oakley experimented with different geometric designs and muted colors to evoke the Italian Gothic ceilings she observed on a trip to Florence in the early 1920s. Along with two other watercolor studies displayed nearby, this work demonstrates Oakley’s comprehensive vision for the entire living room. It was important to the painter that her large-scale triptych, The Great Wonder, stand in harmony with its setting. As a result, Oakley designed all of the architectural details and carefully selected the furniture so that, collectively, every aspect of the living room was executed in a coherent, medieval-revival style. Though only one element of the overall interior design of the living room, this beautiful preparatory sketch for the beamed ceiling offers a glimpse into Oakley’s unique artistic vision for Alumnae House.
Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. East Wall, Living Room, Alumnae House, 1924. Watercolor and pencil on paper mounted on board. Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation; 1982.36.39. In this watercolor study for the east wall of the Alumnae House living room, Violet Oakley revealed her Italian medieval and Renaissance vision for the space, including the antique chairs, table, lectern, and painted shutters and ceiling. Oakley described the importance of her trips to Florence for her design process: “I had been abroad and made some color notes and studies in Italy. The donors [of the Alumnae House living room] decided they wished to have [the ceiling] done, so I made the designs and my two assistants, Edith Emerson and Carolyn Haywood, executed them…. You see there is a good deal of work on it, when you consider all the small beams and the shutters of the three small windows.” These details can be seen in the watercolor, which also shows a guestbook and the pamphlet Oakley composed to explain to visitors the complex iconography of The Great Wonder installed on the opposite side of the living room.

Triptych Closed

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.)

Exterior wings of "The Great Wonder".
Violet Oakley, American 1874–1961. Study for The Great Wonder: closed state, ca. 1922-1924. Watercolor on paper. Gift of Celia Faulkner Clevenger, class of 1958; 1987.24.2.
Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. Study for exterior wings, The Great Wonder, Watercolor on paper. Gift of Celia Faulkner Clevenger, class of 1958; 1987.24.2.

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.

Violet Oakley in her Studio at 1523 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, before 1898. Violet Oakley papers, 1841–1981 (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).
Chinese Sixteenth Century Jade, large belt buckle having a spoon form with dome back, Jade. Gift of Rollin H. McCarthy and Clara Cheney McCarthy, class of 1921; 1964.15.7.
Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. Study for central panel, The Great Wonder, ca. 1922-1924. Pencil on paper. Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation; 1982.36.10.
Northern Italian School, Seventeenth Century. Old Man with His Walking Pole. Red chalk with white chalk highlights on dark beige laid paper. Gift of Marian Phelps Pawlick, class of 1947; 2014.40.1r.
Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. Study for The Great Wonder: right hand panel, ca. 1922-1924. Red chalk on paper. Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation; 1982.36.18.
Illustration from Howard Pyle, The Story of Sir Launcelot and his Companions (New York, C. Scribner's Sons, 1907).

Dedication Ceremony

Chronicler, from Dedication Ceremony, 1924.

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.

Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. Study for the Official Dedication Ceremony of The Great Wonder, ca. 1924. Ink with white highlights on board. Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation; 1982.36.29.
Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. Study for the Chronicler at the Official Dedication Ceremony of The Great Wonder, ca. 1924. Watercolor over pencil on paper. Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation; 1983.29.16. This watercolor study represents Violet Oakley’s vision for the medieval costume of the so-called Chronicler, a Vassar alumna who recited a poem during the dedication of Alumnae House and unveiling of Oakley’s triptych The Great Wonder in 1924. As shown in the study, the Chronicler, after reciting the specially commissioned poem, then presented the Deed of Gift to the president of Vassar College. Oakley’s medieval designs for the costumes and pageant ceremonies resulted in a memorable spectacle in dialogue with the artist’s ideal for the empowered modern woman. Oakley’s Gothic-revival theme suggested that Vassar and its educational mission stemmed from “the medieval idea that created the university...where one withdrew to pursue learning.” As one pageant attendee commented, “all this lovely medievalism reminded us that Vassar is older than Matthew Vassar and the Civil War.”
Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. Study for the Official Dedication Ceremony of The Great Wonder, ca. 1924. Watercolor on paper. Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation; 1983.29.15. This energetic sketch represents the medieval pageant Violet Oakley envisioned for the official dedication of Vassar’s Alumnae House in June 1924. The building’s living room, which houses The Great Wonder triptych, is loosely defined by a few rapidly brushed parallel lines that suggest the floor and ceiling. The figures are rendered with gestural strokes, but only a few individuals actually come into focus as the painted triptych is opened for the first time in ceremonial fashion. Oakley was an experienced event planner, having directed a week of festivities in Philadelphia in 1908 to celebrate the 225 th anniversary of the founding of Pennsylvania. In the dedication ceremony she planned for Alumnae House, she coordinated the costumes, poetry readings, imagery, and rituals – all of which evoked the Middle Ages – including the dramatic opening of The Great Wonder painting, seen in the background of this sketch.

Manuscript

To contextualize the work’s esoteric themes, she created an illuminated manuscript with passages from Revelation to accompany the triptych (now in Vassar's 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.”

Violet Oakley, Manuscript for The Great Wonder: A Vision of the Apocalypse. Vassar Special Collections, Folio ND3039.O3 A4 1924.
Violet Oakley, Manuscript for Open. The Great Wonder: A Vision of the Apocalypse. Vassar Special Collections, Folio ND3039.O3 A4 1924. This large, exquisitely illuminated manuscript, entitled The Great Wonder: A Vision of the Apocalypse, originally stood on a lectern not far from Violet Oakley’s painted triptych of the same name in the Alumnae House living room. Written and decorated by Oakley, the book features a delicately embossed, red-leather binding with brass ornaments. The texts Oakley selected, from the Book of Revelation, are written in an early medieval script, complemented by vibrant paintings set in quatrefoil frames. The manuscript is open to Revelations 11 and 12, with an illumination of the “woman clothed with the sun” on the right. Oakley depicted her levitating above the earth in a powerful and victorious pose. As a vital part of the visual environment Oakley created for Alumnae House, this manuscript, with its extraordinary artistry and finely painted details, radiates modernity through a historic medium.
The Great Wonder, c. 1924 Pencil on heavy tracing paper Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation, 1982.36.9 As a leading painter during the art movement known as the American Renaissance (ca. 1876- 1917), Violet Oakley was interested in medieval-revivalism, which inspired her designs for both The Great Wonder triptych and an accompanying illuminated manuscript with the same title (on display nearby). This drawing is a preparatory study for the illustration of the “woman clothed with the sun” in Oakley’s illuminated manuscript. The pencil sketch is “squared” for transfer; that is, the artist has overlaid the composition with a grid so that she could replicate her design on a larger or smaller scale without losing any details. Oakley uses careful and economical strokes to depict the Apocalyptic Woman, who represents the Christian Church, triumphing over the dragon, which symbolizes Satan. Oakley’s composition fit well with the donor of The Great Wonder triptych, Louise Meigs’s wish that the work “express a noble idea of womanhood.” And, as Oakley herself later observed, the painting “unveils the high idea of Woman and the offspring of her own labors.”
Violet Oakley American, 1874–1961 Study for the Alumni House Living Room: Table and West Wall, 1924 Watercolor over pencil on paper Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation, 1983.29.1
Violet Oakley, American, 1874–1961. West Wall, Living Room, Alumnae House, ca. 1922-1924. Study for The Great Wonder (illuminated manuscript, folio 12 recto). Watercolor and pencil on paper. Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation; 1982.36.6. Painted in 1924 – the same year as the official opening of Vassar’s Alumnae House – this watercolor study provides perhaps the most accurate view of Violet Oakley’s original vision for the living room. Vibrant and colorful, the artist’s detailed rendering shows not only the magnificent The Great Wonder triptych she painted, but also evocative antique furniture she carefully selected for the space when she was traveling in Europe in the early 1920s. Oakley also includes the painted ceiling, and a large illuminated manuscript resting on an ornately carved Renaissance lectern, both of which add to the tranquil atmosphere of the living room. The painter’s representation of the large triptych actually glosses over the rich details in the painting, suggesting that we instead focus on the visual unity of the entire setting. While many of the pieces of furniture shown here are unfortunately no longer in the Alumnae House living room, Oakley’s watercolor studies encourage us to imagine the overall effect the space had in its original state.

Living Room, Alumnae House

Living Room, Alumnae House, Vassar College, 1924
Living Room, Alumnae House, Vassar College, 1924
Living Room, Alumnae House, Vassar College, 1924

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Mourning in the Age of Epidemics

Violet Oakley, Hester Caldwell Oakley Ward, c. 1900, Oil on canvas. Delaware Art Museum: Gift of Mrs. Hester M. Lytle, 1975, 1975-89 © Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Violet Oakley created The Great Wonder, a Vision of the Apocalypse to honor all women and memorialize her sister Hester Caldwell Oakley Ward (VC 1891), who died from typhoid fever in 1905, following the death of her two-year-old daughter Margaret in 1902. Violet and Hester’s father also died in 1900. Their family history was not unusual in the age of epidemics. Smallpox, cholera, typhoid, influenza, and other illnesses devastated families. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, unlike with today’s COVID-19 pandemic, children faced the greatest risks of mortality.   

In response to rising mortality rates in new urban centers, mourning rituals took new forms. Visual signs of grief often associated with the body and with material culture gained popularity: elaborate mourning attire (or, for working-class women, a borrowed dress or one dyed black), hair jewelry, death masks, and postmortem photographs. Surrounded by death during times of famine, war, and pandemics, survivors also created new forms of public, communal, and sometimes political expressions of their grief. People reimagined how they engaged with cemeteries and monuments, but also designed “living memorials”: parks honoring the dead from the Great War, public plantings and benches for meditation, or pageants with ceremonial costumes, lighting, and music. 

So, too, did Oakley imagine The Great Wonder along with the furnishings and painted ceilings of Alumnae House as a living memorial to her sister. Oakley turned to older religious styles from Italian Renaissance painting as well as a mixture of antique and commissioned English, Spanish, and Italian church architecture to evoke, in her words, a “most fixed and definite design.” Her orchestration encouraged a more holistic, transformative mourning experience. It brought together students and alumnae, the Vassar campus and the local community, the past, present, and future to honor the dead and celebrate women’s promise.

Lydia Murdoch
Professor, Chair of the Department of History, Vassar College

Exhibition

Main Sources

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)

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.