A New House for Violet Oakley’s House of Wisdom


Exhibition Artists

Violet Oakley

About the Exhibition

During the American Renaissance, a period of cultural renewal at the turn of the twentieth century, Violet Oakley (1874–1961) achieved international fame as the first woman artist to be awarded monumental and prestigious government commissions. She painted murals and portraits, and designed stained glass windows and altarpieces, book and magazine illustrations, medallions, seals, posters, pageants, and floats. A shining example for aspiring female professionals two decades before women won the right to vote, she fashioned a role for herself as a public figure committed to gender and racial equality, international government, and global peace.

This mural series, The Building of the House of Wisdom, was among the monumental commissions of Oakley’s career. The artist found her theme in Proverbs 9:1: “Wisdom hath buildeth her house.” Her grand allegory demonstrates how wisdom develops within the structure of the family through an embrace of literature, the visual and performing arts, modern science, ancient mythology, and the history of civilization.

In 1908, banker and financier Charlton Yarnall (1864–c. 1959) saw Oakley’s work in the Pennsylvania State Capitol and hired her to create this mural series for his new residence at 17th and Locust Streets in Philadelphia. The house was designed by architect Frank Miles Day (1861–1918), with basement window grilles for the Locust Street side by Samuel Yellin (1884–1940) and leaded windows and stained glass by Nicola d’Ascenzo (1871–1954).

The Building of the House of Wisdom remained in place until 1962, when the American Red Cross purchased the building and began converting it to office space. Concern about the future of the murals prompted Edith Emerson (1888–1981), Oakley’s life partner and then director of Woodmere, to have them removed and given to the Museum. Woodmere has the largest collection of works by Oakley in the United States.

The Building of the House of Wisdom will be installed in the Frances M. Maguire Hall for Art and Education. Dedicated galleries in Maguire Hall will present the collection’s strengths. Included in the exhibition are architectural renderings of the gallery.