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.
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.
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.
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.”
Mourning in the Age of Epidemics
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.
Professor, Chair of the Department of History, Vassar College
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.