Bookshelf provides descriptions and notices of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects.

A Sacred Challenge: Violet Oakley and the Pennsylvania Capitol Murals

By Ruthann Hubert-Kemper and Jason L. Wilson, editors
Capitol Preservation Committee, 2003 (168 pages, cloth, $59.95)

Violet Oakley (1874-1961) was an ideal candidate to accept the challenge of creating the artwork adorning the Governor’s Reception Room in Pennsylvania’s opulent State Capitol in Har­risburg. Born into a talented and cultivated family, Oakley had been commissioned, at the age of twenty-eight, by Governor William A. Stone’s Capitol Building Commission to produce murals for the new “Palace of Art,” designed by Philadelphia architect Joseph M. Huston (1866-1940) and destined to become one of the most widely acclaimed state capitol buildings in the nation. Huston had commissioned Oakley to produce thirteen murals for the Governor’s Reception Room, an imposing cham­ber measuring seventy-one by twenty-seven feet located on the southern end of the grandiose building. At a press conference conducted by the building commissioners to announce the selec­tion of artists for the building – among them painter Edwin Austin Abbey and sculptor George Grey Barnard – Huston said he believed one important room should be decorated by a noted female artist “to add interest to the building and act as an encouragement of women of the State.” Huston said he chose Oakley purely because of her immense talent. Buoyed by the prestigious commission, an exuberant Oakley gave considerable time and thought to the process of design and the execution of the murals. In March 1903, she sailed to Europe to begin research for these murals, studying the colors and styles of the Italian masters in Rome, Florence, Venice, Assisi, and Sienna. Although the works of art she studied in Italy shaped her choice of colors and techniques, Oakley traveled to England to gain perspective on the life of founder William Penn. Once settled in London, she frequented libraries, cathedrals, and galleries where she could learn more about how Penn lived, what influenced his ideologi­cal development, and what prompted his far-reaching vision for a “Holy Experiment” in the New World. As she spoke with scholars, she made notes, sketches, and studies of material she felt could be incorporated in her work for the State Capitol. She also wrote to Huston, informing him that it was not the romance of the Commonwealth or its colonization that needed to grace the walls of the Governor’s Reception Room, but it should be William Penn’s ideals of religious freedom and pacifism. Her argument impressed the architect, who abandoned his original vision of classical motifs and persuaded the Capitol Building Commission to embrace the change. Upon her return home to Villanova, Oakley began to work on expanding the studies she had made in England and settled on a title for the series of murals, The Founding of the State of Liberty Spiritual. After four years of arduous work, for which she received twenty thousand dollars, Oakley enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing her murals installed in the Governor’s Reception Room in late November 1906. To Oakley, Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker wrote that her murals “reflect the highest credit upon you in the present and assure you a place among the great artists of the country in the future.” Newspapers and magazines throughout the country echoed Pennypacker’s praises. Her work on the State Capitol was far from finished, however. When Abbey died in England in 1911, he had completed only one of his murals for the Senate Chamber and none for the Supreme Court Chamber. The Com­monwealth offered Abbey’s commission to Oakley at the original rate of fifty dollars per square foot. Oakley accepted and worked on the murals almost continuously for more than fifteen years, from 1911 until 1927. A Sacred Challenge: Violet Oakley and the Pennsylvania Capitol Murals is a celebration of the artist’s life and career, illustrated not only with reproductions of the works of art for the State Capitol, but also with intimate photographs of her at work and at play at home in suburban Philadelphia. This copi­ously illustrated book includes studies of the artist’s famous murals, as well as drawings in preparation for portraits and various commissions. A Sacred Challenge graphically proves, beyond a doubt, that Violet Oakley was an artist suited to tackle these ambitious commissions, which remain-long after the excitement of their public unveilings – enduring legacies to the artist’s indomitable spirit and relentless drive. In addition to numerous photographs, and appendices, notes, and bibliography, A Sacred Challenge contains a foreword written by Beatrice B. Garvan, a member of the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee and curator emeritus of American decorative arts of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


The Main Line: Country Houses of Philadelphia’s Storied Suburb, 1870-1930

By William Morrison
Acanthus Press, 2002 (252 pages, cloth, $50.00)

As sumptuous as the spectacular residences it presents, The Main Line: Country Houses of Philadelphia’s Storied Suburb, 1870-1930, is a fascinating architectural and social journey that sheds new light on a little-known period in American history. The Main Line is the suburban region to the northwest of Philadelphia synonymous with quiet wealth and exclusivity, and this book chronicles the magnificent country estates and remark­able individuals who made this legendary but intensely private enclave the “most beautiful and desirable residential section in America.” Beginning with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s development of the Main Line in the Gilded Age of the 1870s and continuing through the frenetic years of the Roaring Twenties, The Main Line records the successful efforts to establish the region as the paradigm of aristocratic country life in democratic America and documents the architectural evolution of the American country dwelling from Victorian era gargoyle to domestic ideal. The houses – associated with patrician families whose shadows of sig­nificance fall far beyond Philadelphia – contain rooms numbering in the dozens and bearing names recalling the majesty and magic of romanticized English baronies, such as “Cheswold,” “Stoneleigh,” “Farwood,” “Rathalla,” “Dunminning,” “Bolin­broke,” “Ravenscliff,” “Colkenny,” “Hardwicke,” “Walmarthon,” “Highclere” and “Allgates.” The Main Line does more than offer a litany of famous names and famous places, though. The book offers a look at the clients who commissioned these countryside palaces and the architects who designed them. Archival pho­tographs document a period in which Americans, in the Philadel­phia environs, lavished extraordinary creativity and care on their domiciles. For a sixty-year period, roughly from 1870 until 1930, the era of the nation’s greatest industrial expansion, Philadel­phia’s landed gentry called on architects, garden designers, and decorators to fashion a unique world of country life in the man­ner of the English aristocracy that could be enjoyed after a short train ride from the smoke-filled streets of center-city. The pen­chant for English culture went far beyond these residential commission, though. By the close of the nineteenth century, the Main Line’s self-styled nobility had exhibited a seemingly insatiable appetite for cricket, foxhunting, golf, and polo, and built club­houses to accommodate their every need. The comprehensive documentation contained in The Main Line enables students and scholars alike to appreciate the scope and quality of an architec­tural legacy that sustained Philadelphia’s exurban area for much of the twentieth century. Readers will not fail to note, however, that many of these magnificent rural retreats no longer exist, hav­ing fallen prey to economic downturns, suburban development, and industrial development, while others have been converted for commercial and institutional uses. Nonetheless, this copiously illustrated book documents and celebrates these grand houses and a way of life that has since long vanished, except for the sto­ries of wealth, power, and prestige that refuse to surrender to the ruthless march of time.


Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Organized by Alice Beamesderfer; edited by Nicole Amoroso
Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002 (216 pages; cloth, $32.00; paper, $26.00)

As the capstone of its one hundredth and twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, in 2002, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has published a comprehensive catalogue surveying more than two hundred major works of art that have been given or acquired with funds raised expressly to enhance the museum’s collections. Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is organized chronologically with poetic license in the pairing of works of art from different cultures or countries. Each object is accompanied by informative entries written by museum curators and art historians. Among the gifts are important paintings by John Singleton Copley (Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin), John Lewis Krimmel (Pepper-Pot: A Scene in the Philadelphia Market), Claude Monet (Under the Pines, Evening), Andrew Wyeth (Public Sale), and Jacob Lawrence (Taboo); a dazzling Japanese scroll by Hon’ami Koetsu measuring twenty-seven feet long; a column decorated with iridescent glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany; an upholstered easy chair, circa 1770-1771, attributed to the workshop of Thomas Affleck and recognized as one of the mas­terpieces of eighteenth-century Philadelphia cabinetry; and the finest marble portrait bust of Benjamin Franklin, executed in 1779 by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828). Superlatives do not do jus­tice to either the anniversary acquisitions or their presentation in this volume. Also featured are photographs, drawings, prints, decorative arts, as well as clothing by contemporary designers, including late twentieth-century avant-garde menswear from the collection of John Cale, a founding member of the Velvet Under­ground. The gifts, international in significance and spanning cen­turies and continents, include a number of pieces created or used in the Keystone State: a chest on stand, made in Philadelphia or southeastern Pennsylvania about 1700-1725, one of only two known examples of the type; a suite of two dozen Windsor arm­chairs made by Philadelphian Robert Gaw about 1808; an 1805 birth certificate executed in watercolor in Dauphin County by Carl Edward Munch for Georg Negely; a photograph by the cele­brated nineteenth-century photographers, brothers William and Frederick Langenheim, of Philadelphia’s Merchants Exchange in 1849; a vividly colored early nineteenth-century fireboard painted in Perry County; a circa 1857 silver presentation urn made by R. & W. Wilson, Philadelphia silversmiths active between 1825 and 1883; an elaborate embroidered picture designed by Elizabeth B. Mason and worked by Caroline E. Bieber in Kutztown, Berks County, in 1843; and a phonograph cabinet, 1936-1937, by master sculptor Wharton Esherick. Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, containing more than two hun­dred color illustrations and several dozen black and white images, is a sumptuous birthday present to connoisseurs of fine reading and fine arts.