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This biography was submitted by 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.”