Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Violet Oakley on a scaffolding while painting the lady in blue in the mural International Understanding and Unity.

Violet Oakley on a scaffolding while painting the lady in blue in the mural International Understanding and Unity.
Violet Oakley Papers, 1841–1981, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

At breakfast tables on Sunday morning, December 3, 1911, readers of The New York Times were confronted with a surprising headline running across the magazine section: “A WOMAN CHOSEN TO COMPLETE THE ABBEY PAINTINGS.” Four months earlier, the news that the American artist Edwin Austin Abbey (1852–1911) had passed away in London raised speculation about who would receive the remainder of his lucrative contract at the new Pennsylvania State Capitol (construction completed 1906).

Architect Joseph Miller Huston (1866–1940) had given Abbey an unusually extensive commission that included all of the main government chambers. After working for nearly a decade, Abbey had only completed the murals in the rotunda and the House of Representatives, leaving the walls of the Senate Chamber and Supreme Court room empty. The sudden loss of their chief muralist was yet another setback for the Pennsylvania State Capitol, which was still reeling from the graft scandal that had erupted in 1907, when it was revealed that the building contractor had bilked the taxpayers out of millions of dollars by overcharging. Huston, who was responsible for oversight, began serving a six-month sentence on June 1, 1911, which left the Capitol without an architect in charge when Abbey died on August 1. Shortly after learning of his death, the famous illustrator Howard Pyle (1853–1911), Abbey’s former colleague at Harper & Brothers, had privately expressed interest in obtaining his commission. Pyle had a belated but promising start expanding his career from illustration to mural painting at the Minnesota State Capitol in 1906. He went abroad for the first time in 1910 to study Renaissance frescoes but died in Florence the following year, three months after Abbey. The prestige of a government commission, however, would be coveted by any of the men in the National Society of Mural Painters who were beautifying civic architecture and public spaces during the era known as the “American Renaissance.”

 

The front page of The New York Times Magazine of December 3, 1911, announced Oakley’s commission to complete the Capitol murals.

The front page of The New York Times Magazine of December 3, 1911, announced Oakley’s commission to complete the Capitol murals.

 

So it was newsworthy that a woman had been “chosen to carry out one of the most elaborate and the most costly schemes of decoration of any public building in America.” Her identity was disclosed in the article’s subtitle: “Miss Violet Oakley Will Take Up the Work of the Mural Decorations in the Famous Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Capitol Left Unfinished by the Painter’s Death.” The artist gazed enigmatically over her shoulder at the viewer from a photographic vignette in the center of the page. Described as “a girlish figure with her parted hair and her earnest eyes,” Oakley was 37 years old, a generation younger than Abbey, although she had been painting murals for 10 years. In 1902 Huston broke rank with his fellow architects by publicly stating that he thought one room in the Capitol should be decorated by a woman because it would “act as an encouragement of the women of the state.” He chose Oakley to join his all-male team of artists “purely because of the superior excellence of her work.” His decision was justified in 1906 by the critics’ consensus that Oakley’s mural series in the Governor’s Executive Reception Room was a decorative triumph. Furthermore, Oakley was unscathed by the scandal that broke the following year. In his essay “The Keystone Crime: Pennsylvania’s Graft-Cankered Capitol,” Owen Wister pointed out that “Miss Oakley’s beautiful paintings” were free of the “bloated bad taste” of the building’s interior.

After a Gold Medal from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1905 sealed her reputation as a mural decorator, Oakley received a steady stream of commissions. In 1907 she painted a three-panel mural (Heroism, Sacrifice and Service) for the Henry Memorial Library of Chestnut Hill Academy, a private boys’ school in Philadelphia. Two years later, she designed a double-stained glass window (The Wise and Foolish Virgins) for St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Germantown.

By 1911 Oakley’s services were in demand. Her mural series for the Charlton Yarnall residence in Philadelphia was enthusiastically received by the public in February, and it was featured in The Century magazine in March. In the spring, she was asked by Robert J. Collier, publisher of Collier’s Magazine, to design a stained-glass window on the theme of Dante’s Divine Comedy for the library of his house on Park Avenue. In June she was elected to the National Society of Mural Painters. In August she accepted an offer from architect Charles F. Schweinfurth to paint a mural of The Constitutional Convention in the entrance hall of the new Cuyahoga Courthouse in Cleveland. When Abbey’s commission became available that month, newspapers began reporting that Oakley was a contender for his contract. The New York Times was not exaggerating when it reported in December that “no woman in America has ever held a place that approaches the place she holds in decorative art.” In the early 20th century there were many women designing stained-glass windows and mosaics, and a few painted murals as well. But a female muralist remained an anomaly whose very existence threatened to undermine the theory of innate gender differences deployed to exclude women from the franchise and the professions.

 

Oakley at easel in her studio, circa 1903.

Oakley at easel in her studio, circa 1903.
Violet Oakley Papers, 1841–1981, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Women’s Work

The surge in Oakley’s career paralleled the trajectory of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, which accelerated in the early 20th century after new strategies were introduced. Unable to garner political support for a federal amendment, suffrage organizations made progress securing the vote on the state level. They campaigned for wage equity and challenged the belief that women were biologically unsuited to participate in the professions. By supporting the cause, the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, founded in New York in 1909, made the right to vote about civil rights rather than gender. Removing biological arguments from the discourse on women’s rights was essential to making progress. The feminist social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman attacked the issue directly: “There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver.” Gilman argued that “art is human. . . . The true artist transcends his sex, or her sex.”

In order to be accepted on the same terms as the men who practiced mural painting, Oakley deflected attention from her gender to her art. She told The New York Times that although she was gratified by the recognition of her pioneering achievements, “yet she is glad to find people are not regarding her work as extraordinary simply because she is a woman. That has nothing whatever to do with it; no one seems to be thinking it remarkable that a woman was selected to carry on Mr. Abbey’s work. There is absolutely no sex discrimination in art, and it is good to know that your work is judged solely as work.”

The indisputable evidence that Oakley was the equal of male muralists was beginning to overcome prejudice. Joseph Jackson, art editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, called her a “genius” and insisted that “such gigantic undertakings — gigantic both physically and intellectually” were “a responsibility from which many men would shrink.”

Oakley’s new contract with the Pennsylvania State Capitol came at an opportune moment to negotiate equal pay for equal work. The recent Woman Suffrage Parade in New York, organized by Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of women’s rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, demonstrated solidarity within the female labor movement. On May 6, 3,000 women working in the professions, trades and industry marched together demanding pay equity and the right to vote. Muralists were paid by the square foot at varying rates depending on the amount of funds allocated for the decoration as well as their professional reputation. Oakley’s concern was not the rate itself, but wage parity with the men doing the same job. Five years earlier, she had been paid $20,000 for the entire Governor’s Reception Room, about $25 per square foot. Now she insisted on the same pay rate in Abbey’s contract: $50 per square foot, or approximately $95,000, for the Senate Chamber and the Supreme Court room. For Oakley, the funds were not only a matter of principle; they were a necessity.

Muralists required vast studios with scaffolding and pulleys to raise and lower the huge oil paintings that would then be transported to the designated location and adhered to the walls. They needed assistants to stretch the gigantic canvases and to paint the backgrounds, inscriptions and minor details in the murals. To be close to the great European museums and Renaissance murals in Italy, France and England, painters such as Edwin Austin Abbey and John Singer Sargent lived abroad, while others spent extended periods there. Muralists were expected to pay for their supplies, rent, travel and any help they hired out of their commission fee. Until Violet Oakley was paid at the same rate as Edwin Austin Abbey, her financial capacity to live as a professional muralist was limited.

 

Oakley in mourning, photographed by Olive M. Potts, circa 1900.

Oakley in mourning, photographed by Olive M. Potts, circa 1900.
Violet Oakley Papers, 1841–1981, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Tragedy and Triumph

The meteoric rise of Violet Oakley’s career chronicled in the newspapers did not tell the whole story of her journey to the high position she had reached by 1911. Born on June 10, 1874, in Bergen Heights, New Jersey, she was the youngest of Arthur and Cornelia Swain Oakley’s three daughters. Both of Violet’s grandfathers, George Oakley and William Swain, were painters and early members of the National Academy of Design. Her father’s position in a brokerage firm in the financial district of Lower Manhattan enabled the family to move to the affluent suburb of South Orange, New Jersey, where Violet and her sister Hester attended private girls’ schools. The eldest child, Nellie, had died at the age of 6 from diphtheria, the first in a series of illnesses that plagued the family. The Oakleys were ambitious for their surviving daughters. They enrolled Hester in Vassar College and sent Violet to the Art Students League in New York.

The Panic of 1893 brought their plans and prosperity to an abrupt end. Hundreds of banks failed, thousands of businesses closed, and millions of people were unemployed, among them Violet’s father. Unable to support his wife and daughters, Arthur Oakley suffered a severe mental breakdown. The family went abroad to visit relatives, and Violet and Hester studied art in Paris at Académie Montparnasse and in Rye, England. In 1896 they relocated to Philadelphia, which was then the leading medical center for nervous disorders, and lived in boarding houses to pay for Arthur’s hospitalization.

Violet began studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with the painter Cecilia Beaux, the only woman on the faculty, and Henry Thouron and Joseph De Camp. The following year she enrolled in Howard Pyle’s class at Drexel Institute with the hope of earning money as a freelance illustrator. Pyle gave Oakley and an older student, Jessie Willcox Smith (1863–1935), the opportunity to illustrate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie for Houghton, Mifflin and Co. in 1897. Jessie was one of the many single women in Pyle’s class trying to earn a living as an illustrator; another was Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871–1954), who was contributing to the support of her parents. The three women shared studios in Philadelphia where they developed individual specialties: Jessie’s expertise was in depicting childhood, Elizabeth excelled at romantic fiction, and Violet focused on religion and history. After five years working as professional illustrators, they could afford to lease the picturesque Red Rose estate in Villanova and live there with their families. In 1906 the household moved to Cogslea, an early 19th-century farmstead in the northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia renovated by the real estate developer Dr. George Woodward, where they lived together in a large elegant house with a stone barn used as studio space.

By then, Oakley had shed her identity as an illustrator. In 1899 the Church Glass and Decorating Co. in New York had offered her an apprenticeship as a stained-glass designer, and a year later she produced two mural paintings for the chancel of All Angels Church that received rave reviews. The sight of these murals so impressed architect Joseph Huston that he offered Oakley a commission at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in 1902. The professional pride and financial security of the commission, however, did not diminish the grief of her father’s recent death. Tragically, before she completed the Capitol commission in 1906, she had lost her sister Hester and Hester’s baby daughter to the contagious diseases ravaging the urban populations.

Despairing that neither prayer nor medicine had saved her loved ones, she turned to Christian Science, a new controversial religion founded by Mary Baker Eddy that claimed to heal through faith alone. In 1903 she converted from the Episcopalian religion to Christian Science after being cured of asthma. Although she worked for different religious denominations throughout her life, she remained a devoted member of the Christian Science church.

Oakley’s spiritual crisis found expression in her mural paintings for the Pennsylvania State Capitol. The theme of the Governor’s Reception Room, “The Founding of the State of Liberty Spiritual,” was a tribute to the Quaker principle of religious freedom introduced to America by William Penn and later enshrined in the first amendment of the Constitution. In the Senate Chamber, Oakley would trace the influence of the Quaker principles of nonviolence and racial equality. But before she could accomplish that task, she had to set up a professional mural studio.

 

Senate Chamber panels in Oakley’s studio.

Senate Chamber panels in Oakley’s studio.
Violet Oakley Papers, 1841–1981, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

The three friends, Oakley, Smith and Green, had attained fame and fortune by 1911. Green, now a staff artist for Harper’s Magazine, married the architect Huger Elliott, director of the Rhode Island School of Design, and moved to Providence. Smith, one of the highest-paid illustrators in the United States, worked at an easel and had no need to use the barn that all three had shared as a studio. Smith sold Oakley her share of Cogslea and built a new home on adjacent land for herself and Henrietta Cozens, one of the original members of the Red Rose household. Oakley hired an architectural firm to raise the roof and lengthen the barn to accommodate the panels of her new commissions: 25 paintings, some as high as 16 feet and as long as 44 feet. While the renovations were underway, she spent six months traveling abroad with her mother who always accompanied her.

In 1913 Oakley became the second woman to teach at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Edith Emerson (1888–1981), a student in Oakley’s mural painting class, recalled that she was a “most stimulating, in fact, an electrifying teacher. . . . It was exciting, especially to women students as it abolished any sense of inferiority.” Emerson became Oakley’s first apprentice and assisted her with the murals in the Senate Chamber and Supreme Court room. After the death of Oakley’s mother in 1917, she invited Emerson to live with her and the two women spent the rest of their lives together.

 

The Creation and Preservation of the Union

Oakley’s next task was to compose the mural programme for the Senate Chamber. Governments appropriated funds for the decoration of civic buildings because they believed in the civilizing mission of public art to educate the masses about American history and promote assimilation among the rising immigrant population. As Edwin H. Blashfield, the nation’s leading muralist, explained, “Toward the monument which stands for cherished cause or inspired idea or revered individual the mind turns in instinctive patriotism.” Artists typically decorated government buildings with historical narratives depicting the conquest of the frontier or military victories of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. They celebrated the nation’s abundant resources and its burgeoning industries. They composed allegories with personifications of Liberty, Justice, Columbia and America.

 

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But Oakley saw little reason for celebration when the nation appeared to be tearing itself apart: labor riots, race riots, immigration restriction, lynching and child labor roiled the country. Politicians could not form a consensus on antitrust regulations, working conditions, votes for women, or alcohol consumption. The presidential election of 1912 split into four parties: Republican, Democratic, Progressive and Socialist. Teddy Roosevelt formed the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party, which supported women’s suffrage; he was shot while campaigning for the “New Nationalism” but survived. The Democratic Party candidate Woodrow Wilson, who opposed votes for women, won the election with the slogan the “New Freedom.”

 

The Little Sanctuary in the Wilderness mural, Senate Chamber.

The Little Sanctuary in the Wilderness mural, Senate Chamber. Brian Hunt/Capitol Preservation Committee

In William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” in Pennsylvania, Oakley saw political principles at work that provided solutions to the contemporary turmoil. The Quaker belief in the “inner light” in all human beings entitled people to equal justice regardless of race, creed or gender and freedom from violence. Her theme, “The Creation and Preservation of the Union,” referred not only to the Civil War but also to the need to strive for unification to avoid war and conflict. Her mural series would demonstrate how Quaker principles had created a peaceful civil society that deteriorated when they were abandoned.

 

The Slave Ship Ransomed mural, Senate Chamber.

The Slave Ship Ransomed mural, Senate Chamber. Brian Hunt/Capitol Preservation Committee

The narrative begins at the entrance to the Senate Chamber with scenes of 17th- and 18th-century Quakers in Pennsylvania. The Little Sanctuary in the Wilderness depicts the faith of Quaker colonists who believed they would not be harmed if they left their cabin door unlocked and refused to bear arms against the Indians. The Slave Ship Ransomed shows a wealthy Quaker purchasing a cargo of slaves in a harbor in order to set them free, a practice advocated by the Quaker John Woolman. Both panels are heavily inscribed with biblical quotations.

Constitutional Convention 1787 mural, Senate Chamber.

Constitutional Convention 1787 mural, Senate Chamber.
Brian Hunt/Capitol Preservation Committee

The historical sequence continues on the wall of the speaker’s rostrum. The left side represents the creation of the American nation with a scene of General George Washington and the Troops of the Revolution marching through Philadelphia on the way to the Battle of Brandywine. In The Constitutional Convention 1787, Washington presides over a meeting with the founders at Independence Hall. An enslaved African American is ignored as he places a pile of law books at the feet of Benjamin Franklin. He symbolizes the failure during the Constitutional Convention to abolish slavery, which led to the Civil War. On the right side of the speaker’s rostrum Oakley depicted a somber nocturnal scene of General George Meade and the Troops in Camp before Gettysburg. Gettysburg was hallowed ground in Pennsylvania, and in July 1913 war veterans held a “Great Reunion” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the decisive battle that took place there. Across from the mural of the Constitutional Convention, Oakley positioned The Gettysburg Address 1863 with Lincoln speaking to the grieving crowd of mourners gathered around the podium.

The Gettysburg Address 1863 mural, Senate Chamber.

The Gettysburg Address 1863 mural, Senate Chamber.
Brian Hunt/Capitol Preservation Committee

In the last panel, a 9-foot-wide frieze running along the top of the wall, Oakley departed from American history. In August 1914 the outbreak of the Great War widened her scope from national to international politics. When she was in London in 1912, researching the life of William Penn, she read British newspapers warning that if the Balkan crisis was not resolved it could lead to a world war. Oakley discovered that William Penn had addressed the prevention of international wars in 1693 with An Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe, in which he proposed a plan for a parliament of nations. The mural International Understanding and Unity represented Oakley’s conviction that the integrated world community required an international government based on human rights. Each end of the panel depicted her analysis of the two main causes of war: militarism and greed. The Armies of the Earth were represented by the uniformed combatants of World War I and earlier soldiers, while The Slaves of the Earth showed European slave-drivers whipping Africans as they poured out of tall ships. The center of the panel was inspired by verses  from the Apocalypse of St. John. Oakley created a monumental lady in blue to personify the “water of life” in Revelation 22:1, symbolizing the grace of God. She extends her veil over people of all professions, such as teachers, lawyers and members of the Red Cross, on the left and adults and children of all races on the right. Based on the religious figure of the Madonna of Mercy in the Renaissance, she represented the loving maternal protection of the ideal government.

When the Senate Chamber murals were unveiled on Lincoln’s birthday in 1917, Oakley was proud of President Wilson for keeping America out of the war. But seven weeks later, he reversed course and declared war on Germany. Nevertheless, when Wilson organized the League of Nations at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Oakley was convinced that William Penn was a prophet who had anticipated the inevitability of international government. This was sufficient reward, she wrote, for daring to paint the subject “at a time when the idea of a federation of the world was considered — by the vast majority of mankind — a most wild and forlorn dream of visionaries.”

 

International Understanding and Unity mural, Senate Chamber.

International Understanding and Unity mural, Senate Chamber. Brian Hunt/Capitol Preservation Committee

On June 24, 1919, the State of Pennsylvania ratified the 19th Amendment. The following year, Oakley, who was 46 years old, was able to vote in the presidential election for the first time. By then she had already asserted her right to participate in politics through her murals in the Pennsylvania State Capitol. Like the women in the Pennsylvania antislavery societies, the suffragists, the social reformers, the labor movement and the churches, she didn’t wait for permission to speak and act as an American citizen. Although the United States did not join the League of Nations, Oakley attended the sessions in Geneva and made portraits of the delegates. After World War II, she was commissioned by the Evening Bulletin to sketch the proceedings and delegates to the United Nations in New York.

Shortly after Oakley received the commission for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in 1911, the Philadelphia Public Ledger had stated that “the  history of art in America probably records no greater distinction awarded to a woman than the selection of Miss Oakley to perform so important a work. The choice attracted attention throughout the country, for here was a sure token of the artistic immortality of a woman.” The legacy of Violet Oakley is preserved on the walls of the Pennsylvania State Capitol and the message she left us is still relevant a century later.

 

Further Reading

Violet Oakley wrote several books that explained the inspiration, sources and intended meanings of her murals in the Pennsylvania State Capitol. She designed The Holy Experiment: A Message to the World from Pennsylvania (1922) as a large leather-covered, limited-edition folio with a text in black and red calligraphy and color plates of her murals in the Governor’s Reception Room and the Senate Chamber of the Pennsylvania State Capitol. To disseminate William Penn’s principles as widely as possible, she added an “International Supplement” of translations in French, Italian, German, Spanish and Japanese. The companion volume, Law Triumphant: Containing the Opening of the Book of the Law and the Miracle of Geneva (1933), a slightly smaller folio, included color plates of the Supreme Court room murals and portraits of the delegates to the League of Nations with the text of her Journal of Geneva. To commemorate the tercentenary of the birth of William Penn, Oakley composed a one-volume edition on her Capitol murals. The Holy Experiment: Our Heritage from William Penn 1644–1944 (Cogslea Studio, 1950) was illustrated with black and white line drawings of the murals in the three chambers and an updated text on the progress of international government and disarmament. All of these books are considered rare and are available only through public libraries.

A Sacred Challenge: Violet Oakley and the Pennsylvania Capitol Murals (Capitol Preservation Committee, 2002) is an excellent introduction to Oakley and a short history of her commissions from the state. Oakley is also briefly discussed with other commissioned artists in Literature in Stone: The Hundred Year History of Pennsylvania’s State Capitol (Capitol Preservation Committee, 2006), a centenary tribute. The most recent biography is Violet Oakley: An Artist’s Life by Bailey Van Hook (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), a detailed study of Oakley’s career and an interpretation of her personality.

The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love by Alice A. Carter (Harry N. Abrams, 2002) focuses on the relationships between Oakley and the illustrators Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green who lived together in 1902–11. It is the best source on the early careers of the three women in the field of illustration. A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance, written by guest curator Patricia Likos Ricci, is the exhibition catalog for the retrospective held at Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia in 2017–18. Lavishly illustrated in color, it is the most comprehensive study of Oakley’s work in every medium and places her art in historical context. Ricci’s article “Violet Oakley, American Renaissance Woman” in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, April 2002, discusses Oakley’s role as the only woman artist in the American Renaissance movement.

 

This article highlights Picturing a More Perfect Union, an exhibition at The State Museum of Pennsylvania featuring Violet Oakley’s studies for the Pennsylvania Senate Chamber murals, in commemoration of the centennial of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote and the movement that led to greater freedoms for women in America. The exhibit opens on November 22, 2019, and runs through April 26, 2020.

 

Patricia Likos Ricci, Ph.D., is professor of the history of art and director of the Fine Arts Department at Elizabethtown College. An authority on Violet Oakley, she studies Pennsylvania art and architecture during the American Renaissance era.