Oakley, Violet (1874–1961)

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Oakley, Violet (1874–1961)

American artist, specialist in murals, mosaics, stained glass, and portraits, who is known particularly for her murals at the Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg. Born in Bergen Heights, New Jersey (some sources cite New York City), in 1874; died in 1961; daughter of Arthur Edmund Oakley and Cornelia (Swain) Oakley; studied art at the Art Students League in New York; attended Académie Montparnasse in Paris; attended the Pennsylvania Academy; attended Drexel Institute; never married; no children.

Born in 1874 in Bergen Heights, New Jersey, Violet Oakley was descended from a long line of artists, prompting her to remark that her urge to draw was "hereditary and chronic." Beset by severe asthma as a child, she was not sent to college because her family felt she was too frail for the rigors of advanced study. She later credited the restoration of her health to her conversion from Episcopalian to Christian Science. Oakley began her art training at New York's Art Students League at the age of 19, studying with Carroll Beckwith and Irving R. Wiles. She next studied in Paris, with E. Amanlean and Raphael Colin at the Académie Montparnasse, and in England with Charles Lazar. Returning to her family, now relocated in Philadelphia, Oakley enrolled briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy, then in 1897 transferred to Drexel Institute to study with Howard Pyle, the famous illustrator who was then attracting many students. In Pyle's class, she met and befriended Jessie Wilcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green. The women formed a triumvirate of sorts, taking a studio together in Philadelphia and committing to each other as "sympathetic companions." Later, they shared a country home, the Red Rose Inn, in Villanova, Pennsylvania, where another companion, Henrietta Cozens , joined the household as "wife."

Oakley received many of her early commissions through Pyle, who teamed her up with Smith to illustrate an 1897 edition of Longfellow's poem Evangeline. He also encouraged her interest in the art of stained glass, which brought additional commissions her way, including one from All Angels Church in New York City. In 1902, Oakley received her most extensive commission—to produce 18 murals for the governor's room at the new Pennsylvania state capitol which was to be built in Harrisburg. Although the commission for the main body of artwork was awarded to Edwin Austin Abbey, Oakley was the first woman to ever receive such a large mural assignment, and she prepared with a period of intense study and meditation.

Choosing as her theme the founding of the colony of Pennsylvania by William Penn, Oakley immersed herself in Penn's Quaker philosophy of brotherhood, religious freedom, and world peace. Her identification with the visionary was so complete that she began to view her mural assignment as a "sacred mission." Whatever her process, the results were extraordinary indeed. The unveiling in 1906 was greeted with much acclaim, and Oakley was awarded a gold medal of honor from the Pennsylvania Academy. She later summarized her research for the murals in The Holy Experiment (1922), a book in which she also set forth many of her own philosophical beliefs.

In 1911, when Abbey died, Oakley was called upon to complete the murals for the capitol, an enormous undertaking for the artist who was also busy with a flood of other work. The assignment occupied the better part of the next 16 years, during which she completed the Unity Panel (9' high × 46' wide) and a 9-mural series called The Creation and Preservation of the Union, both for the Senate chamber. Ten years of the project were spent on 16 murals for the Supreme Court room which comprise The Opening of the Book of the Law. Between 1913 and 1917, while working on the capitol murals as well as her other commissions, Oakley also taught a mural class at the Pennsylvania Academy. One of her students, Edith Emerson , became her assistant.

Following the completion of the murals in 1927, Oakley devoted the remainder of her life to the cause of world peace. Traveling to Geneva, Switzerland, she recorded in drawings and paintings the deliberations for the founding of the League of Nations, then displayed them around the world to promote the League. These pictures, along with images of her Supreme Court murals, were later reproduced in the book The Law Triumphant (1933).


Carter, Alice A. The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love. NY: Abrams, 2000.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Oakley, Violet (1874–1961)

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