"For the first time in the history of American art, a woman is to be entrusted with the mural decoration of a great public building," wrote the Philadelphia Press back in 1902.
The commission of 13 murals for the new state capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa., went to Violet Oakley, a 28-year-old illustrator whose extraordinary achievements would be virtually forgotten four decades later -- a victim of changing artistic fashions.
The Harrisburg award -- made because the architect decreed "at least one room should be decorated by a woman" -- was the first public endorsement of the extraordinary talent revealed anew in a show opening today at the National Collection of Fine Arts. "Violet Oakley: Art and Decoration" includes 50 works on paper showing the development of major projects she undertook during her turbulent career, which ended in 1961 at the age of 87.
Oakley took honors and prizes that catapulted her into the forefront of the American Mural Movement, that passion for high-minded, painted interior decorations that were de rigueur in turn-of-the-century American Renaissance edifices. She was the only woman to achieve major status in the movement previously dominated by Elihu Vedder and John Singer Sargent.
For the next 30 years Oakley was busy with a steady stream of major mural commissions and stained glass designs for churches, public buildings and grand private houses until 1940, when abstraction and modern art -- to which she never gave even passing attention -- rendered her saints and visions of Dante and the apocalypse obsolete. She spent her last years doing portraits, which are not included in this show.
What is included is impressive enough: elevated themes from the Bible, literature and history, all in a style that combines the classicism of the Italian Renaissance with the romance of pre-Raphaelites. Oakley could make wonderful, loosely rendered drawings, such as the beautiful studies for the Yarnall residence in Philadelphia, where she decorated an entire room with allegorical murals on the growth of civilization. She could also make exquisitely detailed, medieval-manuscript-like designs, like those she devised for the Supreme Court Room in Harrisburg from 1917 to 1927. The richness of her visual imagination, however, is perhaps best seen in an extraordinary painting for the Fleisher Art Memorial, "The Life of Moses," depicting the pharaoh's daughter, in full Egyptian regalia, holding the baby Moses in the classic pose of a Renaissance "Madonna and Child." Oakley traveled widely and often in Italy, and its influence never left her; nor did her training with Howard Pyle, the celebrated illustrator of Arthurian legends.
In Oakley's heyday, she was a favorite subject for the press, which watched as she climbed the scaffolding, working without assistants. With several other women artists, she maintained an elegant and then highly unusual life style and salon on a sylvan estate called "Cogslea."
Though, some of her work has been destroyed or sold to restaurateurs by about-to-be-demolished churches, much of it has been preserved in the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation of Philadelphia, from which this exhibition is drawn. It continues through Sept. 14.
Upstairs at the NCFA is an exhibition of work by another fine, half-forgotten American artist who, unlike Oakley, is still around to enjoy his own revival.
"John R. Grabach: Seventy Years An Artist," includes 22 paintings spanning the life work of a man who had a large reputation and won many prizes (including several at Corcoran Biennials) but was swept aside by the post-World-War II Abstract Expressionist wave. Grabach, now 94 and a vegetarian, still paints every day. Small wonder: He is a born painter, and his great range is clear even in this small show.
He began as an impressionist and later moved on to the social realism of the Ashcan School. There are luscious early landscapes of the Connecticut River, and wonderful paintings that show an early interest in patterning for the sheer love of color.That interest persists in pulsing scenes of Manhattan in which workers build bridges, and women hang out the wash.
Grabach was hit hard by the Depression, and though he never worked for the WPA, his themes in two masterworks from the '30s reflect a clear socialist leaning, and speak volumes about their time. They also show Grabach's profound empathy for people, which is as immediate as the day these paintings were made. The show continues through Aug. 17, and should not be missed.