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Art Students Delve into the History of a Great Wonder

Visitors to Vassar’s Alumnae House have been struck by the elegance and beauty of the living room ever since the building opened nearly a century ago. Perhaps the room’s most striking feature is a vibrant triptych, The Great Wonder: A Vision of the Apocalypse, painted by noted 20th-century artist Violet Oakley. The work features the “woman clothed in sun” from the Book of Revelation.

Violet Oakley’s The Great Wonder: A Vision of the ApocalypsePhoto: Karl Rabe; usage, courtesy of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center

The triptych is only part of Oakley’s contribution to the design of the Alumnae House, however. She designed the entire room as a memorial to her sister, Vassar alumna Hester Caldwell Oakley Ward of the Class of 1891. The artist’s contribution to the beauty of the building was celebrated recently in an exhibition of her preparatory drawings and other materials assembled by staff at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center—with assistance and support from students of Art 218: The Museum in History, Theory and Practice, taught by Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art Christopher Platts.

Elizabeth Nogrady, Andrew Mellon Curator of Academic Programs, said Platts asked her to curate the Oakley exhibit because the triptych was an example of Renaissance Revival art. “Chris is a Renaissance specialist, but he was interested in Oakley’s triptych because it was made to look like an Italian work from an earlier age,” Nogrady explained.

Members of Platts’ class gathered information on various aspects of Oakley’s design of the Alumnae House living room. One student, Chloe Richards ’22, took part in the creation of a three-dimensional scan of the Alumnae House that enables viewers to learn about the triptych and other aspects of Oakley’s design of the room.

Richards, an urban studies and Hispanic studies double major from Portsmouth, NH, said the class began its work in the fall of 2019, but the exhibition was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said her urban studies curriculum centers on architecture, and because of her interest in the field, she was particularly intrigued by how Violet Oakley had designed the room. “It was inspiring to study the work of a pioneering woman architect,” Richards said. “It was a great way to study architecture, to walk through the space and see how she had designed it.”

Richards said she was proud to have taken part in a project that sheds light on Violet Oakley’s artistic contribution to the College. “Something tangible about Vassar’s history and women’s architecture has been highlighted and preserved through this exhibit, and as someone who plans to pursue a career in architecture, that had special meaning for me,” she said.