Edith Emerson, Portrait of Violet Oakley
An accomplished painter who also designed murals, stained glass, illustrations, and bookplates, Emerson was the director of Woodmere Art Museum from the early 1940s through her retirement in 1979. Here, she places her life partner, Violet Oakley, at the center of the couple’s vibrantly colored home. Everything in this symmetrical composition directs the viewer’s eyes to Oakley: the blue dishes and vases, the fruit-filled bowl, the candlesticks, the flowered curtains, and the painting in the background. Squarely behind Oakley is a representation of Oakley's painting Il Convito (The Banquet), in which Emerson is dressed as her alter ego, Giovanni.
Emerson and Oakley met at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Emerson was a student in Oakley’s mural painting class. To Emerson, Oakley was the “most stimulating . . . electrifying teacher, opening up undreamed of possibilities and encouraging every effort. It was exciting, especially to women students as it abolished any sense of inferiority.” The twenty-two-year-old Emerson was highly educated and had traveled widely. She became Oakley’s studio assistant in 1916 and two years later moved into Oakley’s home in Mount Airy. After Oakley’s death in 1961, Emerson established the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation, which was dedicated to keeping alive her memory and ideals.