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Violet Oakley

 (1874 - 1961)
Violet Oakley was active/lived in Pennsylvania, New Jersey.  Violet Oakley is known for mural, genre, portrait, illustration.

Violet Oakley

Biography from the Archives of askART

The following is a press release from Richard Saiers, Capitol Preservation Committee, Harrisburg, PA: May 2003


HARRISBURG, PA-On June 10, 2003-the 129th anniversary of the birth of Capitol artist Violet Oakley (1874-1961)- Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Clymer will honor Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll with an official proclamation, and introduce the Committee's newly published book entitled "A Sacred Challenge: Violet Oakley and the Pennsylvania Capitol Murals".

Making history as the first woman elected to the Office of Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Catherine Baker Knoll joins the Committee in celebrating another important woman in Pennsylvania history, Violet Oakley, who at the turn of the century received the largest art commission ever given to an American female artist. At a time before Pennsylvania women could vote or hold elected office, the Philadelphia artist received the honor of creating forty-three paintings for the State Capitol building-a task that would propel her to the forefront of the American art world.

The ceremony will be held in the Capitol's main rotunda beginning at 12:00 noon and feature remarks given by Lt. Gov. Knoll and Committee Executive Director Ruthann Hubbert-Kemper. In addition the Committee will recognize special guests who knew or were affiliated with Oakley and contributed to the A Sacred Challenge including: former neighbor Lisa Ulrich Burr; student painter Joyce Pratt; Christian Scientists Ethel Adams and Glenna Liuzzi; Woodmere Art Museum director Dr. Michael Schantz and registrar Mildred Staib; State Museum of Pennsylvania curator of fine arts Lee Stevens; and private collectors Loice Goucker and Brian Zahn.

"The contributions made by Violet Oakley are an important part of Pennsylvania history and the Committee is proud to tell the story of how one woman's talent and hard work became an integral piece of beauty in the State Capitol-truly one of America's greatest public buildings. It is especially meaningful to have Lt. Gov. Knoll, as the first female Lieutenant Governor, here with us today to celebrate the notable artistic achievements of Capitol artist Violet Oakley," said Rep. Clymer.

Notable highlights of the ceremony will include a presentation of "first stamped" books to Lt. Gov. Knoll and Rep. Clymer using Oakley's original insignia stamp, which the artist featured prominently in all of her published works, and the unveiling of a rare piece from an Oakley mural that was removed during the mid 1980s demolition of the All Angels' Church in New York City, now privately owned by Stephen James and Peter Bates in Canada. After the ceremony, birthday cake will be served and guests will have the opportunity to purchase a book with an original insignia stamp.

"A Sacred Challenge" contains over 200 photographs and a foreword by Philadelphia Museum of Art Curator Emeritus, Beatrice B. Garvan, "A Sacred Challenge" gives meaningful insight into Oakley's entire life's work combined with information about the Committee's 1992 conservation of the Capitol murals. The Committee will offer this hard cover edition at an introductory price of $49.95 with proceeds from book sales going to the Capitol Restoration Trust Fund, which helps to restore the Capitol building.

Violet Oakley became one of the most prolific artists in America, and a leading proponent of world peace. She embraced the legacy of Pennsylvania founder William Penn as her own and for the remainder of her life she steadfastly pursued peace and world harmony as her goals. Her Capitol murals are her timeless message, one that she herself termed, "a sacred challenge." These paintings serve as enduring reminders of her creativity, inspiration and belief in an attainable and lasting world peace.

Biography from American Illustrators Gallery
Unlike so many other illustrators, Violet Oakley's family was mostly artists. Consequently, she did not have to struggle to gain permission to study art and as a young girl in Bergen Heights, New Jersey, she was encouraged to attend the Art Students League, which she followed a year later with trips to Europe.  With two grandfathers members of the National Academy of Design, she described her infatuation with illustration as 'hereditary and chronic.'

In 1896, Violet Oakley returned to the USA and enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but within a year she changed her focus and left for Drexel Institute to study under Howard Pyle.  It was while at the Drexel Institute that she met her beloved companions, illustrators par excellence Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Willcox Smith.  Like Maxfield Parrish she attributed the Pre-Raphaelites as a great influence on her style as well as Howard Pyle, whose contributions to her career are not unsung.  Pyle immediately recognized her talents, her sense of color and composition and her deft handling of large-scale artworks.  He felt that her greatest ability was in large-scale works and encouraged that pursuit although it would mean few illustration commissions. Ms. Oakley may have been the only illustration student whose work Pyle admired but that he encouraged to go in a different direction-other than illustration.  He continually attempted, wherever possible, to get her commissions for large-scale murals and stained glass windows and he was successful and Oakley got such commissions.  Yet, she always did illustrations whenever the opportunity loomed.

Violet Oakley completed one of her most significant commissions in 1902, 'The Creation and Preservation of the Union' which consisted of a series of large murals for the walls of the Governor's Reception Room in the State Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  The extraordinary working studies for the murals were issued in a portfolio as limited edition art prints, they are illustrations by definition.  The finished paintings were a magnificent expression of Oakley's fondness for history and the talent she had honed through years of struggle as a pioneering female illustrator in a mostly male-dominated profession.  Elements of historical accuracy are merged eloquently with sturdy skills acquired under the tutelage of Howard Pyle. The commission took four years during which she also did some illustration work from time to time.

In 1911, Edwin Austin Abbey died while working on other aspects of the same project, and she was awarded his work as well.  During the next 19 years, she completed the murals and also illustrated six illuminated manuscripts, and a book on the murals.  A committed artist of great integrity, she documented her works well, had numerous exhibitions, and worked up until the day she died in 1961.

Biography from Blake Benton Fine Art, Artists L - O
Violet Oakley, painter, illustrator, muralist, sculptor, was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1874.  She began studies at the Art Students' League in New York, after then after studying a year with Carroll Beckwith she went to Paris and became a pupil of Aman Jean.  She also was a pupil of Charles Lasar in England. 

Upon returning to the United States she settled in Philadelphia where she received instruction from Cecilia Beaux and others.

As her work led naturally toward illustration, she entered the class of Howard Pyle. She collaborated with Jessie Willcox Smith in 1897 on Evangeline and in that "color work came the first suggestion for stained glass".  Oakley also did illustrations for Collier's, Illustrated Weekly and Everybody's Magazine.  She was also known for portraits and lakes. 

In 1898 she executed mural decorations, a mosaic reredos, and five stained-glass windows in the Church of All Saints, N.Y.  She also designed and decorated a window in the convent of the Holy Child at Sharon Hill, PA.

In 1893 Oakley was commissioned to decorate the walls of the governor's reception room in the capitol of Harrisburg, PA.  Her preliminary studies and drawings for these famous murals in the capitol at Harrisburg were exhibited at the St. George Gallery, Hanover Square, London.  She was the first woman granted to perform such a task.  An art critic writing on this work said that: "her grasp of the subject in union with great technical skill has placed Miss Oakley in the foremost rank of American artists.  She was chosen to complete the important mural decorations in the capitol that Edwin A. Abbey had been commissioned to do prior to her death."

She successfully completed many other murals during her distinguished career as a mural painter and became known as the pre-eminent mural painter of her time.  Violet Oakley designed the "Philadelphia award" medal, an annual gift of Edward W. Bok, which carries with it $10,000 to the citizen of Philadelphia "who has performed an act or a service calculated to advance the best and largest interest of that city." 

She was a member of the National Academy of Design; Philadelphia Art Alliance; American Institute of Architects; Philadelphia Watercolor Club and others.  During her distinguished career she won numerous awards including: medal, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1905; St. Louis Expo. 1904; Panama Pacific Expo., San Francisco, 1915; Architectural League, 1916; prizes, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1922, 32, 40 and others. Oakley's works are in many of the top museums and public institutions in this country and abroad.

She passed away in Philadelphia in 1960.

Biography from Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee
Violet Oakley was born into a family of artistic tradition. Oakley's formal artistic education was rather sporadic.  Although she studied at the Arts Student League in Philadelphia, and at various institutions abroad during summer trips, the bulk of her training came from copying works of the old masters on her own.

The year 1896 was a landmark in Oakley's early career.  Her family moved to Philadelphia, where she soon entered Howard Pyle's illustration class at Drexel Institute.  She flourished under Pyle's tutelage and soon became one of America's most popular illustrators, designing covers for Century Magazine, Collier's Illustrated Weekly, Everybody's Magazine, St. Nicholas and Woman's Home Companion. At the same time, she also gained a reputation as a talented designer of stained glass.

In 1902, Pennsylvania Capitol architect, Joseph Huston, asked Oakley to paint thirteen murals for the Governor's Reception Room.  Huston believed that choosing Oakley would "act as an encouragement of women and the State."  In fact, the Capitol project signified a milestone in the history of American art, for it was the largest public commission given to a woman in the country up to that time.  In addition, it allowed Oakley to transcend the conventional roles of women painters as either portrait or genre painters, and to pursue a successful career in the prestigious, but overwhelmingly masculine, field of mural decoration.

Throughout her work on the Governor's Reception Room, Oakley received much publicity.  The Capitol murals won her the Gold Medal of Honor from the Pennsylvania Academy of fine Arts in 1905, making her the first woman to receive this distinction.

After the death of Edwin Austin Abbey in 1911, she obtained the commission to complete the contract for the Senate Chamber and Supreme Court.  Oakley painted a total of 43 murals for the Capitol Building.  Not only was Violet Oakley a talented artist, she was also a social activist involved in the women's suffrage movement, and totally devoted to the ideals of international government and world peace.  In fact, when the United States refused to join the League of Nations in 1927, Oakley went to Geneva herself as a self-appointed ambassador.  Through her three cycles of visionary murals in the Pennsylvania Capitol, Oakley sought to express her desire and hope for "world peace, equal rights, and faith in the work of unification of the Peoples of the Earth."

Note from Ruthan Hubbert-Kemper, Executive Director of the Capitor Preservation Committee.

"Some biographies for Violet Oakley list her birth place incorrectly as Bergen Heights, but it should read Jersey City, NJ.  We discovered this as we were researching for the book our Capitol Preservation Committee (CPC) compiled on Violet, who painted 43 murals in the PA Capitol.  We also recently made a discovery of a bust that is in Nice, France.  Thanks to a niece of Violet's whose father was the sculptor, the Committee is getting a cast of this art, and will shortly place it on exhibit in a case that currently exhibits other art by Oakley in the Capitol Rotunda.

Biography from Frye Art Museum
Illustrator, muralist, writer and pacifist, Violet Oakley gained public recognition and critical acclaim for her professional achievements during a time when popular opinion held that a woman's true vocation was as "the angel in the house."  In addition to establishing her reputation as an accomplished artist, she also co-founded several Philadelphia cultural and artistic organizations, taught art classes, and garnered international attention as a proponent of disarmament and a supporter of the League of Nations.

Oakley's illustrations appeared in many fashionable publications, including Collier's Illustrated Weekly and Everybody's Magazine.  Her murals grace the interiors of both the Pennsylvania State Capitol and were in All Angels Church in New York City, but that church was razed so the whereabouts of those murals is unknown.  Her pastel portraits of the dignitaries whom she viewed as the prophets of internationalism were widely exhibited throughout Europe and America.

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About  Violet Oakley

Born:  1874 - Jersey City, New Jersey
Died:   1961 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Known for:  mural, genre, portrait, illustration

Essays referring to
Violet Oakley

Paris pre-1900
Women Artists