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"The Child and Tradition" lunette, from the mural series "Th ... Image 1

"The Child and Tradition" lunette, from the mural series "The Building of the House of Wisdom," Charlton Yarnall House

Oil on canvas
Credit Line
Gift of the Southeast Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Red Cross, 1963
84 x 165 in.

Description & Inscriptions

Impressed by a series of murals Oakley had completed in the Pennsylvania State Capitol, banker Charlton Yarnall commissioned Oakley to create a series of murals for the entrance hall and music room of his new neo-renaissance mansion at 17th and Locusts Streets in Philadelphia. The murals, collectively titled Building the House of Wisdom (1911), are considered to be among Oakley’s greatest achievements.

The Child and Tradition is the first in a series of three large lunettes. The scene takes place at the foot of a double staircase, where a fair-haired boy about the age of Charlton Yarnall’s daughter, Agnes, rests against his nurse’s knee while listening to a story told by his mother (Mrs. James Crosby Brown [Agnes Hewlett] was the model), who is elegantly dressed in a blue gown. The landscape painting on the wall behind them is a window into the world outside.

Great figures of history and literature occupy the stairways. At lower left, Confucius peers from the foundation of the house to teach that familial devotion is the basis of a harmonious society, as described in his Analects. On the steps above him, Solomon, the wise king of the Old Testament, holds a coffer of his riches as he contemplates the child. At lower right, Cicero, the model Roman citizen whose writings inspired the Italian humanists, emerges, while on the stairs above him the Italian poet and moral philosopher Dante, best known for his epic poem, The Divine Comedy, is led upstairs by his idealized love, Beatrice.

The panel is inscribed with a verse from Ecclesiastes 3:15: “That which has been is now, and that which shall be hath already been” and bordered with garlands of foliage, flowers, fruit, and urns, emblematic of the cycle of life. The child must climb the stairs to reach the next level of maturity, symbolized in the second lunette, Youth and the Arts.


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