Back in 2010 my family took a trip to Philadelphia. On the way we stopped in Harrisburg and went to the Capitol building (we’d go to any capitol building we could when on vacation). One of the first things you notice about the capitol is the gorgeous green dome. When you enter the building it’s just as gorgeous. A big part of what makes Pennsylvania’s capitol special is the murals throughout. The murals were done by Violet Oakley, the first American woman to receive a public mural commission.
Violet Oakley was born on June 10, 1874 in Bergen Heights, New Jersey (her birthplace is often listed as Jersey City; Bergen Heights was part of Jersey City, so neither is wrong). Both of Violet’s grandfathers were members of the National Academy of Design, so when Violet wanted to be an artist, she had a relatively easy path. In 1892 she started at the Art Students League of New York, and the following year went to study in England and France. In France she studied at the Académie Montparnasse.
In 1896 Violet returned to the US to study. She began at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but less than a year later she left and transferred to the Drexel Institute School of Illustration after the urging of her sister, Hester, who was already attending Drexel. At Drexel, Violet studied under Howard Pyle. At this time she also made friends with Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Willcox Smith, other students of Pyle’s; Pyle nicknamed them the Red Rose Girls because they lived together at the Red Rose Inn (1).
Violet had success as an illustrator. She had pieces in The Century Magazine, Collier’s Weekly, St. Nicholas Magazine, and Women’s Home Companion. At the time, about 88% of subscribers to magazines were women, and so there was a push to show the world from a woman’s perspective, and so women were hired as illustrators. (2).
Despite the success at illustration, and teaching her illustration, Pyle actually encouraged Violet to pursue large scale pieces and helped Violet get commissions for murals and stained glass pieces. Violet still worked on small pieces when she could.
Violet attributed her style to Pyle and to the Pre-Raphaelites. Her art also showed a “commitment to Victorian aesthetics during the advent of Modernism” (3). Violet had also become a Quaker in her adult life (she was raised Episcopalian), and wanted to showcase the Quaker ideals of pacifism, equality of races and sexes, and economic and social justice (4).
In 1902, architect Joseph M. Huston chose Violet to create murals for the Governor’s Reception Room in the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, purely on the basis of her talent (5). Before this point, her only mural had been at the All Angels Episcopal Church in New York City. Violet admired William Penn’s utopian vision for Pennsylvania, and wanted to highlight this. She travelled to Europe to study about Penn’s life. The murals in the Reception Room took Violet over four years, and highlight her talents as well as her interest in history. Violet would do fourteen murals total for the Reception Room, and 43 murals in total in the Capitol building.
In 1903, while she was working on these murals, Violet joined Christian Science. While she had been in Florence, Violet had her asthma cured through prayer and so joined Christian Science. She was a member of the Second Church of Christ, Scientist in Philadelphia from its founding in 1912 until her death in 1961. In 1939, Violet even illustrated a poem by Mary Baker Eddy (the founder of Christian Science) in the style of illuminated manuscripts.
In 1911, Violet was working with Edwin Austin Abbey on the Senate Chamber and Supreme Court Rooms at the Capitol, when Abbey died. Due to her talent and work with Abbey, Violet was chosen to finish Abbey’s work. This work took Violet nineteen years, over which time she completed the murals, six illuminated manuscripts, and a book about the murals.
After her work at the Pennsylvania Capitol, Violet did a mural at the League of Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland; the Henry Memorial Library at the Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia; and the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown in Philadelphia (6).
Throughout the rest of her life lived on and off with the Red Rose Girls and Henrietta Cozens. Their home in Mt. Airy, PA was called Cogs from their initials (Cozens, Oakley, Green, and Smith). The home was later called Cogslea, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Violet Oakley Studio in 1977. Her home and studio in Yonkers, NY, where she lived on and off from 1912 to 1915, are also in the National Register as Plashbourne Estate.
Violet lived at Cogslea with her longtime companion Edith Emerson after the other Red Rose Girls moved out. Edith was the director and president of the Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia. They lived together for the rest of their lives. Violet Oakley died on February 25, 1961. She is buried in the Oakley family plot in Green-Wood Cemetery.
While Violet’s work had fallen out of favor after World War II, there was renewed interest starting in the 1970s. In 1996, Violet Oakley was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame – the last of the Red Rose Girls to be inducted. In June 2014, Violet’s grave was featured on the first gay themed tour of Green-Wood Cemetery (7).
1, 2, 3, 4, 7 – Violet Oakley