Thursday, March 8, 2018

Violet Oakley and Inspiration or Imitation

In honor of women’s history month I'd like to "introduce" Violet Oakley who I rediscovered at the Woodmere Museum’s exhibit "A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance” this fall. Oakley was an artist working during the Golden Age of Illustration when so many beautiful posters and children’s books were published. I've always admired these books, from Mother Goose to Last of the Mohicans. But I wasn’t aware of the professionalism and scale of Violet Oakley's illustration. This exhibit focused on her grand murals including the studies and research that went into creating them.

Along with fellow artists Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Wilcox Smith, Oakley had studied with renowned illustrator Howard Pyle (who also taught N.C. Wyeth). Pyle admired the talent and accomplishments of the women. That’s great. But, he referred to them as the Red Rose Girls - and that name sort of set the hairs up on the back of my neck! Turns out it wasn't as sexist as it sounds, the name came from the Red Rose Inn where the three women lived. (Were there any Red Rose Boys? No, certainly not.)

Oakley also studied with Cecelia Beaux, one of America's earliest professional female artists. While she admired and was influenced by the style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters, she developed her own themes of peace, equality and justice.
The Pre-Raphaelite influence is evident in Oakley's women.

Violet had her work cut out for her. Not only was she a woman working as a professional artist in a man's world, but, due to her father's disability she was the sole support for her family at an early age. Fortunately illustration was at its peak and not yet suffering the stigma of "mere commercialism" that denigrated this art form in later years.
Painted for the Pennsylvania Senate Chamber.

Oakley's creative ability and professionalism led her to seek large commissions. She was the first woman chosen to execute grand murals for civic buildings, including the Pennsylvania’s Governor’s Reception Room which she painted at age 28. Her large, historical allegories are on the scale of Sargent’s murals in the Boston Public Library and Sorolla’s paintings at the Hispanic Society in New York. Moreover, when she was asked to step in to finish an important state project upon the death of artist Edwin August Abbey, she demanded - and got! - equal pay for her work. Unheard of then, and rare even now.

Whatever the subject, she found a way to render her passion for humanity, equality and peace into the scene. At the end of World War I Oakley became interested in the League of Nations and took it upon herself to document these peacemakers by making sensitive portraits of the delegates, many of which were on exhibit at Woodmere.

Drawings of UN delegates reflect Oakley's interest in peace

Oakley did a lot of research and spent a great deal of time setting up varied compositions. The exhibit showed multiple iterations of some compositions - an interesting insight into her process. While mastering the power and majesty of historical allegories with such themes as Peace and Unity, Love and Wisdom, and Divine Law, Oakley also sensitively portrayed essential human attributes of tender care between individuals, especially mother and child, as in these paintings. Life, full circle. 
Part of Oakley's Youth in Art series for a private residence

The Pearls, 1911
So, how will Oakley's paintings influence me. First, I love the style of her compositions, from the art nouveau-like figures in their theatrical poses to her patterned borders reminiscent of illustrated storybooks. And her sensitive, elegant lines are breathtaking. There’s a geometry to her murals and stained glass that adds strength and character to grand history paintings. But I’m not a figurative painter so I won't be emulating her style in a literal way. Inspiration is not imitation.

My inspiration might be to pay homage to the manner in which she stages people creating sensitive interaction. Oakley’s subjects were often renowned figures - and mine are often pottery and vegetables! But still, I hope to capture that essence just a little. Plus, observing the hierarchy of color and value in her compositions is a reminder to use those elements to move the viewer's eye through the painting to grasp the full story.

It's a good idea to figure out what it is about a particular artist that inspires and then perhaps add a touch of that aspect within the scope of your own work. Otherwise you run the risk of being a shallow version of the artist you admire. We all have our own voice. Be inspired. Don't imitate.

In addition to the work itself, I admire Violet Oakley for her conscientious commitment to being a professional artist. She made no excuses and had every expectation that she would be treated as an equal. She did a tremendous amount of research and preparation for every project she undertook – all of which added to the emotional impact of her paintings. There are no shortcuts for master work!
Oakley's study for Youth and Art with grid overlay for transfer
Since this is National Women’s History month, it’s important to note the barriers that Violet Oakley transcended. News about her acquiring the important Pennsylvania civic commissions headlined the fact that “a woman” got the job (her name was only mentioned in the subtext). There was surprise – and doubt – that a woman would have the strength of body or mind to execute a series of large, important historic murals. Not only did she execute these massive murals onsite, on scaffolding, she did it in a long dress!

In interviews about this accomplishment Oakley said she got the work not because she was a woman, but because she could do it. It was pointed out that there is no “masculine mind” any more than there is a masculine liver.

Violet Oakley was clear on her ability as an artist and her rights as a human being. She stayed focused on what she aspired to achieve and did the work necessary to fulfill her dreams. That is what inspired me most about this incredible artist. No excuses. Just get it done. Not quite as easy as it sounds.

You can read more about Violet Oakley on the Woodmere Museum exhibit page.

Thanks for joining me on my artistic journey.

Just for fun... here's some of my research for this post -

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