Artist Spotlight: Violet Oakley

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Monday, June 15th, 2015

Muralist and illustrator, Violet Oakley, achieved fame as the first American woman to land a public mural commission, a field that was exclusively practiced by men. Her work was inspired by history and literature, often capturing styles from the Renaissance revival.

Oakley was born into an artistic family in New Jersey, showing talent at an early age and pursuing a course in fine art. She studied in both England and France and painted all over the world before residing in Philadelphia, where she lived a majority of her life.

In 1902, Oakley was approached with a commission to paint fourteen large murals for the Pennsylvania governor’s reception room. She had no idea this would be the start of a 25-year magnum opus and would provide a breakthrough for her to enter the specialized field of mural painting.

Oakley’s fourteen murals were unveiled in the Capitol on November 27, 1906 before a large crowd. With her work complete, she filled her time with other commissions. In 1911, she was approached by Samuel B. Rambo who offered Oakley the opportunity to create murals for the Capitol’s Senate and Supreme Court Chambers. When she was finished, she had created 43 murals within the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building.

Born: June 10, 1874, Bergen Heights, NJ

Died: February 25, 1961, Philadelphia, PA

Famous work: Pennsylvania State Capitol murals (begun 1902 and 1911)

Facts about Violet Oakley:

  • Known for her illustrations, murals, and her work in stained glass.
  • Studied at the Art Student’s League in New York and with Howard Pyle at Drexel Institute.
  • Taught mural painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1913-17.
  • Commissioned to paint a series of 18 murals in the new Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg circa 1902, but ultimately painted a total of 43.
  • Lived with two other Pyle-influenced artists, Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Willcox Smith, in the Red Rose Inn in Villanova, PA from 1899 to 1901.
  • Politically active, she was a feminist.

Quote: “There are so many parts to this vast world of ours, that to see all the parts fitly framed together requires the formulation of a great composition, the work of the hand of the master.”

Violet Oakley illustration by Lea Bowersox ’08