My visit to the Rosenbach was extremely satisfying to my inner literary nerd. This library and museum provided us with the opportunity to see rare items like a ﬁrst edition of Don Quixote, the manuscript of Ulysses, a first edition of Phillis Wheatly’s poetry, a second folio of Shakespeare’s plays, and so much more. As the guide led us through the collection spaces, my smile grew larger and larger. The tour through the permanent collection was amazing and I enjoyed my time with our docent, Steve, in the permanent collection space!
In addition to the tour of the collection, the Rosenbach has a special exhibition space for visitors to explore on their own. The exhibition we visited, Of Two Minds: Creative Couples in Art and History, highlights work that has been created as a result of the collaboration in romantic partners. This exhibition contains letters from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, an illustrated book from a married couple, and even work from University of the Arts graduates.
The “Creative Couple” that captured my attention during in this exhibition were Edith Emerson and Violet Oakley. Instead of letters, finished books, or detailed maps, viewers are presented with two simple drawings done by each of the women of the other. Violet’s work is a small piece titled “E. Drawing Onions” and communicates a relaxed, quick sketch. You can imagine yourself sitting in a field with the two of them, pencils scratching paper. Edith’s presentation of Violet is a little more finished with a border, some shading, and Violet’s name written across the bottom. Perhaps Edith captured Violet in a moment of reflection.
Violet Oakley worked in mural painting and stained glass and was quite successful in the field. She completed commissions for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg which is extremely impressive for a profession dominated by men. Violet went on to become to become the second female instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where she met Edith Emerson. Edith was also a talented muralist and the two worked together professionally to become successful women in the field of public art. They later lived together for nearly forty years.
These two drawings are so interesting because they are physical manifestations of the relationship that the two women had together. In a time when historians are still slow to identify historically same-sex relationships, these objects proudly identify Victoria and Edith’s connection. It is exciting to see two women celebrated in an exhibition about creative couples and not necessarily in one that focuses on gay relationships. I appreciated that the Rosenbach’s exhibition included representation of a gay couple in a way that didn’t sensationalize them but simply presented them as equals amongst the other couples through a straightforward object label. Their objects aren’t necessarily special because they were gay but because of the work that Edith Emerson and Violet Oakley accomplished.
Other objects in the exhibition are the culmination or masterpiece of a couples work but these two drawings aren’t trying to exemplify the significant accomplishments of the two women. Rather, the simple line drawings offer a window into the everyday and give viewers a sense of the affection Edith and Violet had for one another. In a room of impressive and grand objects, the two drawings hold a different attitude. Like the letters by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, viewers can feel a direct connection the individuals who created them. Whether it’s finding out you make yours “g”s just like Queen Isabella or recognizing the marks of a quick sketch in the same way you doodle, these intimate items are engaging for visitors of all backgrounds.
Because of their same-sex relationship, the drawings by Edith Emerson and Violet Oakley would appeal to a type of museum visitor known as an affinity seeker. Affinity Seekers are motivated to visit a museum, see an exhibition, or participate in a program because of a connection to their core identity. For many in the LGBTQ+ community, their sexual orientation is a large part of their big identity. An afterhours program with drinks that highlighted and celebrated LGBTQ+ related objects, authors, or artists in the Rosenbach collection, including the Edith and Violet drawings, would be a draw for millennials in the gay community. Focusing on the ways in which the collection intersects with the LGBTQ+ community could attract those affinity seekers for whom being gay is a large part of their identity.
While the exhibition Of Two Minds: Creative Couples in Art and History closed on October 7, you can see the work and influence of both Edith and Violet at Woodmere Art Museum. Edith served as a curator and director at the museum and the institution has featured Violet’s work several times. As for the rest of the collection, I recommend you take a tour with one of their charming docents. I know that I’ll be Rosen-back!
“Collections,” Rosenbach Museum and Library, accessed 12 October 2018, https://rosenbach.org/collections/.
John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking, The Museum Experience Revisited, London and New York: Routledge, 2016, 7.
“Of Two Minds,” Rosenbach Museum and Library, accessed 12 October 2018, https://rosenbach.org/visit/exhibitions/of-two-minds/.
“Violet Oakley and Edith Emerson: painters, partners, and paragons of art education,” Rosenbach Museum and Library, accessed 12 October 2018, https://rosenbach.org/blog/violet-oakley-and-edith-emerson-painters-partners-and-paragons-of-art-education/.