Violet Oakley show at Woodmere reveals this Philly artist's great skill and quiet complexity

“The Child and Tradition” (detail), from Violet Oakley’s mural series “The Building of the House of Wisdom,” 1910–11.

If you ask many contemporary artists what they are trying to do, you will hear a lot of words like questionundermineinterrogatedeconstructsubvert, and unmask. Authority needs to be delegitimized. We need to see the evils of the everyday.

Violet Oakley was well aware of the world’s violence and injustice. But for her, the role of artist was not to be a critic. Rather, it was to help people find their best selves, and to act on their noblest intentions. Her work, and particularly the murals that were the centerpiece of her career, were visions of an evolving and improving civilization.

“A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance,” an enormous exhibition at the Woodmere Art Museum through Jan. 21, makes an extremely strong case for the artist. It features more than 150 works, including monumental murals, cartoons for stained-glass windows, preparatory sketches, and even a folding altarpiece designed for a World War II Navy ship.

Equally important, it features good new photographs of Oakley’s magnum opus, the murals for the Governor’s Reception Room, the Senate, and the Supreme Court chambers at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, works that occupied two decades of her life. She was the first woman ever to have received such an important public commission.

Camera icon Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
A study for Oakley’s “William Penn, Student at Christ Church, Oxford,” from her Harrisburg Capitol mural series “The Founding of the State of Liberty Spiritual,” c. 1902–6.

Oakley was only 28 when she was chosen, and although the building was at the center of a massive corruption scandal that landed its architect in jail, she persisted in creating what was, for its time, a monumental expression of progressive values. The show includes a voice recording she made many years later describing the Capitol murals. The drive and determination in her voice match the ambition of her art. No shrinking violet she.

Oakley, who was born in Jersey City in 1874, came from an extended family of artists. After studying in New York and Paris, she moved to Philadelphia in 1896 to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She stayed there for only a semester, but she made her home in Philadelphia until her death in 1961. She arrived at the right time, just as the scions of the families who had made the city a smoky industrial boomtown during the decades after the Civil War were looking to make their civic buildings, churches, and schools express the values and vitality of an emerging American civilization.

Part of the impetus for this movement was the desire to establish white Protestant culture as permanent and legitimate in the face of an enormous influx of immigrants. Oakley herself often sought to tell a more inclusive story; five of her nine murals in the Pennsylvania Senate chamber have black faces in them.

And in The Child and Tradition, one of the large murals she made as part of the series The Building of the House of Wisdom at the Charlton Yarnall House at 17th and Locust Streets, Confucius lurks on a stairway, along with Solomon, Cicero, Dante, and Beatrice, to teach the child of the house how to be disciplined and wise. Still, Oakley’s work flatters her prosperous Philadelphia clients. In this remarkable series of murals, shown here in its entirety, all of history, art, and science seem to be reaching their culmination circa 1910, a block from Rittenhouse Square, in the lives of one well-off family.

Camera icon Courtesy Woodmere Art Museum
Confucius (at left) signifies wisdom in “The Child and Tradition” (detail), from Violet Oakley’s mural series “The Building of the House of Wisdom,” 1910–11.

Oakley began her career as an illustrator for magazines, but a turn-of-the-century surge in the construction of important public buildings throughout the country drew her toward mural work. Many of her fellow illustrators made the same shift, including her mentor Howard Pyle, whose first murals, made for his house, are currently on display at the Delaware Art Museum.

These were begun in 1903, shortly after Oakley’s first works in Harrisburg, but here the student far surpasses the teacher. Pyle’s work is conventionally decorative. Oakley’s is a visually and intellectually rich drama of William Penn’s founding of Pennsylvania as a place of religious freedom and model for the world. Indeed, before she even began to paint, she persuaded her clients and collaborators to jettison their original theme, “The Romance of Colonization,” a problematic topic at a moment when the United States had just annexed the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Instead, she proposed “The Founding of the State of Liberty Spiritual.”

According to the catalog by Patricia Likos Ricci, who also curated the show, Oakley often prepared for major commissions by traveling to Europe, most often Italy, for a few months of looking around. Her approach was eclectic. She looked at earlier artists and took what she needed. She used Botticelli drawings as the basis for a stained-glass window based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, and William Blake seems to have inspired a rather apocalyptic memorial at Vassar College.

Camera icon Courtesy Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College)
Violet Oakley’s “The Woman Clothed with the Sun,” c. 1916.

Hers was an art of synthesis. It was not important that every artistic gesture be original. Indeed, it was better if people could perceive the way a mural or window echoed earlier masterpieces. The art was in choosing your influences and bringing them together in a way that spoke to the present. Some impressionist color here, a composition cribbed from Mantegna there, and an expressionist squiggle or a bit of gritty, magazine-ish visual storytelling somewhere else could all add up to something that embodied tradition while speaking to the moment.

Such extreme and creative eclecticism was based on careful looking, extensive reading, and great drawing skills. It is telling that when Oakley was inducted into the National Academy of Design in 1920, which required her to submit a painted self-portrait, she showed herself at an easel, drawing in red chalk, an old masters’ medium. The exhibition is rich in works in chalk, charcoal, and pastels. Many are studies for small vignettes in the large murals, which reveal the emotional and geometric complexity of her compositions.

It is hard to know, nowadays, how to see Oakley’s combination of excellent draftsmanship, intellectual seriousness, and moral ambition because those attributes are generally absent in the art and civilization of our time. We tend to mistrust her facility, and to look to art for emotion rather than instruction. She was a celebrator of institutions, while we are attracted to the artist as outlaw.

You need to look carefully to see how personal — and how strange — her art can be.

A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance

On exhibit through Jan. 21 at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave.

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m.-8:45 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: $10 adults, $7 seniors, free for students with ID and children.

Information: 215-247-0476 or woodmereartmuseum.org.