The Great Wonder: Violet Oakley and the Gothic Revival at Vassar

The Great Wonder: Violet Oakley and the Gothic Revival at Vassar
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY
Feb. 27-June 13, 2021

Violet Oakley (1874–1961) was a pathbreaking American artist and social activist during the first half of the twentieth century. Her eloquent narrative paintings, colorful stained-glass designs, and otherworldly book illustrations conveyed morally uplifting messages for audiences in New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere in the United States. Between 1922 and 1924, Oakley executed a monumental, Gothic-revival painting called The Great Wonder: A Vision of the Apocalypse for the living room of Vassar College’s newly built Alumnae House. The artist also designed and furnished the living room in a hybrid medieval and Renaissance style, creating a peaceful yet visually stimulating environment which the Vassar community and visitors enjoy to this day.

Drawing on the rich holdings of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and Vassar’s Special Collections Library, this exhibition features drawings, watercolors, illustrated books, and other objects that illuminate Violet Oakley’s original decorative scheme for Alumnae House. These artworks reveal how the painter developed the dynamic composition of The Great Wonder and designed even the most intricate details of its architectural setting. Oakley’s talent for creating a total artistic environment is evident not only in this undertaking – her only surviving interior-design project – but also in the elaborate medieval pageant she orchestrated for the dedication of Alumnae House in June 1924. Considered alongside The Great Wonder and the Alumnae House living room, the objects on display attest to Oakley’s creativity and dedication to inspiring others through highly original visual means.

This exhibition was curated by Professor Christopher Platts and his students in the Vassar College seminar ARTH 218: The Museum in History, Theory, and Practice in spring 2020.

The accompanying virtual exhibition can be found here:

In addition, a virtual, 3-D tour of the Alumnae House living room that Oakley designed and which includes the monumental painting of The Great Wonder is available here:

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