Violet Oakley

(1896-1961) American Illustrator and Muralist.

Oakley was a very well-established figure. Unlike other women illustrators featured here, she does not require introduction. That said, it would be silly to omit her. (She is largely absent from the Walt Reed tear sheet files, since she did comparatively little magazine work.)

Born in Bergen Heights, New Jersey, Oakley hailed from an art-oriented family. Both of her grandfathers were members of the National Academy of Design, and she was encouraged in artistic pursuits. Oakley described her love of drawing and painting as “hereditary and chronic,” according to a brief biography provided by the Delaware Art Museum, where her papers reside in the Helen Farr Sloan Library.

Although she sought training in New York, England and France in the early to mid-1890s, Oakley found a satisfactory mentor in Howard Pyle, in whose course she enrolled at the Drexel Institute in 1896. Her classmates included Maxfield Parrish, Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Willcox Smith, among others. (Pyle taught at Drexel from 1894 to 1899, decamping in 1900 to his own digs and studio school in Wilmington, Delaware. He summered with his students in the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania. The "Brandywine School" associated with Pyle was a mindset more than a locale.) 

Oakley became fast friends with Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green, and the three of them set up shop together in Villanova, PA, then in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. The trio was dubbed the "Red Rose Girls," with a fourth woman, Henrietta Cozens, serving as mistress of the house. For more on the Red Rose Girls, consult Alice Carter's book of the same name (Abrams, 2000) which explores, if haltingly, the intimate dimensions of life at Cogslea, the household they shared. When Elizabeth Shippen Green married Huger Elliott in 1911, the arrangement shifted. Oakley remained at Cogslea with her companion Edith Emerson in a "Boston marriage," the discreet term for a household shared by two women. 

Unlike Shippen Green and Willcox Smith–whose book and magazine work focused on women, children and representations of nurture and socialization, Oakley pursued mural commissions. She also designed for stained glass, a medium well-suited to her Pre-Raphaelite, Victorian aesthetic orientation. 

Oakley's public projects often necessarily focused on historical themes, most notably for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, for which she produced a cycle of murals between 1902 and 1906.

The Delaware biography extends the story of the Pennsylvania murals:

 In 1911, Edwin Austin Abbey, the artist responsible for the major portion of the Harrisburg murals, died. [Oakley] was given the balance of the commission, which included the Senate Chamber and the Supreme Court Room. For the next nineteen years she struggled with the nine murals for the Senate Chamber and the sixteen murals for the Supreme Court Room. At the same time she completed six illuminated manuscripts, and a book summarizing her research on the murals, and she undertook the decoration of the Alumnae House at Vassar. 

Around the turn of the century Oakley did some magazine work, producing illustrations for Century Magazine, Collier’s Weekly, St. Nicholas Magazine, and Woman’s Home Companion, among others. Additional public commissions include the Cuyahoga County Courthouse in Cleveland, Ohio (1915).

Violet Oakley, The Constitutional Convention and the Birth of the Union. Senate Murals, Pennsylvania Capitol Building. Dedicated in 1917. The images shown here were torn from a promotional booklet published by the State of Pennsylvania about Oakley's murals. 

Violet Oakley, The Dedication of the Living to the Preservation of the Union. Senate Murals, Pennsylvania Capitol Building. Dedicated in 1917.

Violet Oakley, Penn Turns from the World to Hear and to Heed the Quakers Preaching in the Field at Oxford. Reception room murals, Pennsylvania Capitol Building. Unveiled in 1906.

Violet Oakley, Penn Driven from his Father's House and his Father's Ambitious Hopes is Arrested for Preaching. Reception room murals, Pennsylvania Capitol Building. Unveiled in 1906.