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"The Great Wonder: Violet Oakley and the Gothic Revival at Vassar," The Evolution of an Exhibition

Today’s blog post comes from Chloe Richards, Art Center student docent and Vassar class of ’22.

West Wall, Living Room, Alumnae House, 1924: Watercolor and pencil on paper, Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation, 1982.36.6

Spring semester of 2020, I became interested in learning more about the curatorial side of museum work, after having been a Student Docent at the Loeb since the previous year. This led me to take the course Art 218: The Museum in History, Theory, and Practice taught by Christopher Platts. At the time I didn’t know it, but this course would allow me to explore some of the lesser known works of art at Vassar and engage with them in new ways once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

Many students at Vassar don’t know about the hidden gem that is the living room at Alumnae House, which is located on Raymond Avenue across from campus. This room was designed in the early 1920s by Violet Oakley as a memorial to her sister and Vassar alumna, Hester Caldwell Oakley Ward (Class of 1891). The living room’s main attraction is the impressive triptych The Great Wonder: A Vision of the Apocalypse which features the “woman clothed in sun” from the Book of Revelation. Oakley’s design for the triptych and the entire decorative scheme for the room speaks to her unique effort to bring women into a narrative of Gothic revival art and architecture, which is especially apt for Vassar as a women’s college at the time. In Professor Platts’ class we worked together to create an exhibition revolving around the plethora of preparatory drawings by Oakley for the design of the living room and the triptych that today belong to the collection of the Loeb.

Unfortunately, for months we did not get to see our work come to fruition, as the college switched to remote learning and most students returned home at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. One unintended advantage of being a docent is that I have been able to continue to work with the Violet Oakley exhibition after it opened at the Loeb almost a year later, in February 2021. During this semester I have helped convert the information from the exhibition onto a three-dimensional scan of the Alumnae House. This scan is especially important because Alumnae House is not open this semester, so we had to devise other ways people could visit virtually instead. During a time when the triptych is not accessible to students or the general public, the virtual format allows visitors to see some of the works of art hidden around campus, and more easily visualize Oakley’s original vision for the project by overlaying the scan of the room today with her preparatory drawings. 

Click the image above to visit the three-dimensional scan of the Alumnae House.

The Loeb has also converted the gallery talk that would typically accompany the exhibition into a virtual event. This talk will be held on May 14 at 1:00PM Eastern via Zoom and is available here. Of course, the virtual gallery talk and the scan of the Alumnae House cannot perfectly replicate the experience of going to see the living room in person, but I’ve found that one advantage of highlighting Violet Oakley’s work through these mediums is that they bring to light less familiar works to the Vassar community, both on campus and across the world. As always, if you would like to visit the Loeb in person and see The Great Wonder: Violet Oakley and the Gothic Revival at Vassar exhibition for yourself, it will be open until June 13. 

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