Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Bob’s Art Blog: A Gift for the Season

The entrance to the current State Museum exhibit.

Some of the best holiday gifts arrive early.

This one arrived right before Thanksgiving, and now the people of Harrisburg have the holiday season to open the big red bow. It is a wondrous package to be enjoyed by all. In honor of the 100th anniversary in 2020 of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, the State Museum proudly unveiled “Picturing a More Perfect Union: Violet Oakley’s Mural Studies for the Pennsylvania Senate Chamber 1911-1919.”

Anyone who has toured the Capitol building is well familiar with the stunning murals Violet Oakley completed over a span of almost a quarter of a century. The sheer magnitude of her life’s crowning achievement has been seen by thousands of visitors in thrall to the beauty in word and picture from her brush. They are a testament to an artist and a woman of high ideals and lofty hopes for a world where peace would reign. The story of how the Capitol’s murals came to be under Oakley’s vision is a story of destiny and fate. Lightning does strike the same place twice.

It was the “Golden Age” of illustration. Her contemporaries, artists of inordinate skill, like her instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Howard Pyle, and world-renowned muralist, Edwin Austin Abbey, both were slated to decorate the walls and ceilings of the Pennsylvania State Capitol. Abbey had just completed four lunette murals under the dome of the Capitol Rotunda and one painting for the Senate Chamber when diagnosed with cancer. Pyle, pegged to take his place, died in Europe before even starting.

Oakley, the first female to receive a government mural commission, had already completed the panels for the Governor’s Reception Room five years earlier. Thus, undertaking the Senate Chamber murals fell to her. She called the new commission, “The need to pick up the threads and weave again,” finding it both a burden and a blessing. Her painstaking planning and detailed execution, as seen in her sketches, come alive in the dense and richly textured exhibit.

The main panel that opens the exhibit makes for a dramatic beginning with an overlaid photograph of Oakley and a full color rendering of the “Unity” mural. It creates the sensation of a book cover as one enters a portal going back in time to the artist’s studio and viewing her sketches firsthand.

The span of history the exhibit encompasses predates the passage of the 19th Amendment, which does not get ratified until months after Oakley’s completion of the Senate Chamber murals. This tumultuous era entails the war that shook the world, The Great War (World War I 1914-18). The United States entered it in its final year, dashing all hope for Oakley’s vision of world peace. Her feminism and vocal advocacy for peace formed the cornerstone for her murals, which embraced Quaker ideals that come across both through William Penn’s vision and those of Oakley’s. She was an artist of great conviction and was highly attuned to human suffering throughout history by all peoples.

If any one mural speaks volumes regarding her views it is “Unity,” the pinnacle of her work. The frieze is majestic in size and scope, running 46 feet long and nine feet high. In the exhibit, it is represented as a mural composite image. Three separate sketches take the viewer from its inception to its natural end incorporating gouache, watercolor, graphite and ink on paper and pastel and chalk on paper. Perhaps the apex of the exhibit is a tape recording made in 1955 accompanied by visual text to Oakley’s voice when she returned to the State Capitol to discuss her murals. Hearing her words today resonates even more deeply, given the state of our world. Oakley was and still is revered as a unique voice in championing women’s rights, a pioneer for other women no matter their field, as professional status was difficult to attain in a world dominated by a male hierarchy.

The State Museum of Pennsylvania, under a triumvirate of historians and curators, mounted this magnificent, multi-faceted exhibit. Preeminent Oakley scholar, Dr. Patricia Likos Ricci, provided expert advice for the exhibit. She has studied Oakley for more than 40 years and also is an art historian and professor at Elizabethtown College. Dr. Curtis Miner, the State Museum’s senior curator of history and Amy Hammond, fine arts curator, collaborated on the collections shown. Ricci interviewed Oakley’s life partner, Edith Emerson, who provided instrumental background to the thought process and attention to detail that Oakley brought to life in her sketches. Ricci was responsible in large part for bringing the Oakley sketches to the museum for inclusion. Beyond the art academics is the exhibit’s designer, Meghann Dekan, who transferred the Senate Chamber murals to wood panels framing the exhibit. They provide exact duplication to those Oakley executed in the Senate Chamber. Dekan orchestrated the constructs of the walls as well as the interpretive materials that accompany the exhibit.

The museum’s treasure of this exhibit is yours for the asking, a gift for all to be savored and enjoyed to its fullest. I cannot think of a better season to carry out Violet Oakley’s underlying wish for world peace. May you have the warmest of holidays.

“Picturing a More Perfect Union: Violet Oakley’s Mural Studies for the Pennsylvania Senate Chamber, 1911-1919,” runs through April 26 at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, 300 North St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit their website.


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