Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

When Violet Oak­ley accepted the commission – and challenge – of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to decorate the State Capitol then under con­struction in Harrisburg, she announced that the subject of her mural series would be “The Romance of the Found­ing of the State.” In 1902, the ardent lady mural painter, then twenty-eight years old and the only one of her kind, envisioned William Penn’s unfortified province of 1681 not merely as a fact of history but as the fruition of a centuries-long quest for the Ideal State. “I burned to build a great monument,” she de­clared, “not only as its memo­rial, but that it might live again.”

For Violet Oakley, William Penn was much more than the founder of Pennsylvania; he was the forefather of civil liberty and the prophet of world peace. Penn’s “Holy Experiment” in the New World was an oasis of social harmony born of his suffering in Eng­land. Imprisoned for his Quaker beliefs and driven from his native land by perse­cution, he had experienced the futility of violence. He came to the wilderness of Pennsylvania determined “to try then what Love can do.” Penn’s convic­tion that government was the only means to justice and justice the only assurance of peace, was the first demon­stration of the principles upon which all free modern states have been founded.

In Pennsylvania’s magnifi­cent State Capitol, Violet Oak­ley enshrined the ideals of the visionary individual whose political principles formed the bedrock of international gov­ernment. “My own faith in an organized world governed by international law dates from my first study of the life of William Penn,” Oakley recalled in 1950 on the occasion of being named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania. By then she had been crusading for world peace for half a cen­tury. Among the earliest advo­cates of international law, and a champion of the League of Nations and the United Na­tions, Oakley became the official portraitist of the dele­gates of both organizations. Two World Wars only intensi­fied her conviction that the time was rapidly approaching for the fulfillment of Penn’s vision of a spiritually united world and the substitution of law for war. Oakley had fore­seen the inevitability of inter­national government at a time when the idea of the federa­tion of the world was consid­ered a forlorn dream of visionaries and idealists. 1n 1949, she anticipated the need for disarmament “in the Atomic and Ideological Age through which we are passing.”

Violet Oakley was the first woman in the history of Amer­ican art entrusted with the decoration of a public build­ing. Her career was a series of landmarks for women in the arts. Proving herself capable of the intellectual and physical challenges that faced the mural painter, Oakley was welcomed into the company of the men who were transforming Ameri­can civic architecture and changing the face of American cities.

A modern woman, Oakley was a phenomenon of the progressive spirit that pro­pelled American society as the new century approached. The New Woman of the twentieth century defined her own role in society and her unprece­dented behavior was often controversial: she was edu­cated and earned money, she rode a bicycle and traveled unchaperoned; she was a nurse, teacher, painter, and author; she could not yet vote but she claimed the franchise and influenced national atti­tudes towards war, poverty and alcoholism. For the first time, large numbers of Ameri­can women raised their voices on behalf of orphans and child laborers; they demanded new standards of health in the slums and in the jails. They were eager to see maternal instinct active in the larger family of the nation, caring for the helpless and the afflicted. The New Woman was the conscience of her country. In the Senate Chamber, Oakley pictured this comforting, uto­pian spirit of modern woman as a goddess robed in the blue waters of the earth, sheltering people of all races and ages. “Unity is its theme,” she ex­plained at the unveiling of the mural on Lincoln’s birthday in 1917, “the unity of all life, and this oneness of the law of life is Love.”

Oakley’s talents and ideals had been carefully nurtured by her family. Born in Bergen Heights, New Jersey, in 1874, she was the youngest of Ar­thur and Cornelia Oakley’s three daughters. Her grandfa­thers, George Oakley and William Swain, had been among the earliest associates of the National Academy of Design. Cornelia Swain stud­ied first with her father, a portrait painter known as “the Gainsborough of Nantucket,” and then with the mural painter William Morris Hunt in Boston before her marriage to Arthur Oakley. George Oakley and his brother Octavius, a member of the Royal Water Color Society, were English painters. In the middle of the nineteenth century, George came to the United States and spawned a large family of professional and amateur artists. Although his son Ar­thur made his living in the investment houses of New York, he was also an amateur painter and encouraged his daughters to seek professions in the arts.

Louisa May Alcott’s memo­rable description of the up­bringing of four sisters in Little Women, based on the enlight­ened educational concepts of her father, the philosopher Bronson Alcott, influenced generations of American fami­lies. The Oakleys cultivated their daughters and fostered their independence. From their earliest years, the children were introduced to the rudiments of drawing and painting. The first child, Nellie, a precocious talent, was already able to cut little portraits in silhouette when diptheria ended her life at the age of six. Hester was sent to Vassar College, while Violet, who suffered from asthma, remained at home sketching and copying Old Masters from the copies made by her grandfathers on their grand tour. Her formal education began at the Art Students League, New York, in 1894 in the classes of Carroll Beckwith and Irving J. Wiles. The following year she traveled abroad, accompanied by her sister who had decided to become a writer.

In the atelier of Edmond Aman-Jean of the Academie Montparnasse in Paris, Violet learned to draw the elegant curving lines of the fashionable art nouveau style, a trait that would soon be evident in her illustrations. In the summer of 1895, the sisters went to England and sketched in the studio of Charles Lazar in Rye, Sussex. They returned home determined to enter the rapidly growing magazine industry which was searching for writers and artists for a new audience of women and children. For the next few years, the sisters collaborated on illustrated stories which they published in The Woman’s Home Companion and McClure’s Magazine. Hester wrote romantic tales spun out of the sisters’ adventures in Europe and Violet dramatized them in charcoal. The sisters usually posed for the protagonists, who were invariably modern young women struggling to become artists.

In 1898, Hester published As Having Nothing, an autobiographical novel in which a young painter supports herself and her mother by making illustrations while she dreams of greater opportunities. An encounter with the slums of New York City convinces her that she should expose the shocking living conditions in her illustrations. When a suitor insists that this is no job for a woman, she replies: “What if I am independent, even to the point of danger? What if I do outrage every tenet of your narrow, conventional creed of what a woman should be and do? I have my own life to live and I ask nothing but to be allowed to live it as I must – the right that belongs to every working-woman as well as every working-man.” The resemblance of this character to Violet Oakley is unmistakable, representing the sensitive temperament that would make the painter a missionary of social justice. A sense of moral responsibility and public service characterized her life and work. Although Oakley did not depict the slums, she promoted the social reform movement spearheaded by Jane Addams, a Quaker who spent her life improving the living conditions of the poor in Chicago.

Violet’s life came more and more to resemble the impassioned character in her sister’s novel. After the death of their father in 1900, she assumed the support of her mother. Hester, like most of her heroines, married. She did not live to see her sister acclaimed as a muralist. Hester died in the typhoid epidemic of 1905 as Violet was preparing to exhibit the murals for the Governor’s Room. In 1924, Violet presented the Vassar College Alumnae House with a memorial to her sister, an altarpiece on which she had painted “the Woman clothed with the sun” from the Book of Revelation.

In 1896, Violet Oakley traveled to Philadelphia for the first time to study with the city’s celebrated portraitist Cecilia Beaux at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After the success of her first mural series at the State Capitol, Oakley joined the faculty of the Academy and taught a course in mural decoration from 1912 until 1917. But the decisive formation of her style as a muralist came not from Beaux’s luminous portraits or the Renaissance Revival murals of John La Farge (1835-1910) or Kenyon Cox (1856-1919), but from the impact of illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911).

Howard Pyle was the most influential and innovative illustrator of the day. He was remarkably versatile and worked in a variety of styles. Through Pyle, American artists kept pace with the innovations in British illustration which flourished under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement. The Chaucer of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press epitomized the new standard for the art of the book. Pyle’s replications of medieval manuscripts and Renaissance woodcuts ornamented the texts of legends and romances. Morris himself admired Pyle’s edition of Robin Hood.

At the opening of the twentieth century, the importance of illustration to American culture was much greater than it is today. Few Americans traveled and there were few public collections to visit. In a society that was just beginning to build museums, the general public was unfamiliar with historical styles and the trends of contemporary European painting. Engravings and lithographs in British and American books and periodicals composed the largely black-and-white diet of pictures that reached the eyes of the public. Illustration was an art for the people who came to expect pictures to be literal, like texts.

Violet Oakley was one of the many artists to benefit from the magic touch of Howard Pyle. Many of America’s favorite illustrators were trained by Pyle in Wilmington, Philadelphia, or along the banks of the Brandywine River in Chester County. Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth and Jessie Willcox Smith are among the more celebrated illustrators in the Pyle tradition.

Violet Oakley, Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green were already selling small illustrations and advertisements to magazines when they met in Pyle’s class at the Institute of Technology, now Drexel University, in 1896. Pyle encouraged collaboration among his students and in 1897, he arranged for Oakley and Smith to illustrate a new edition of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline for Houghton, Mifflin and Company. Their friendship forged by this commission, the two women rented a studio together at 1523 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. They were soon joined by Elizabeth Shippen Green, whose illustrations had begun to appear in the Saturday Evening Post, Century and Harper’s Weekly. For the next fourteen years, this “trio of painters,” as the press called them, lived and worked together.

In 1902, they arranged a joint exhibition at the Plastic Club, a professional organization for women artists in Philadelphia. Oakley’s poster for the exhibition, in which a woman is depicted watering three red roses, revealed the occasion for this public event. For several years the artists had been pooling their incomes, which had steadily grown, in order to escape the dust and distractions of the city. Each summer the strangulating heat of Philadelphia drove them to rent studio space on the shady campus of Bryn Mawr College, where Elizabeth Shippen Green claimed to have obtained her “whole general education by sitting on the lawn and breathing in such knowledge as was left unabsorbed by the college girls during the year.” When the Red Rose estate in Villanova was purchased by Col. A. J. Drexel in 1902, the artists saw the opportunity to set up a communal residence.

The Red Rose had once been the home of A.B. Frost, the illustrator of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus, so it already enjoyed association with artists when the women moved there in the summer of 1902. Nevertheless, the ladies of the Red Rose immediately attracted attention for their unusual living arrangement. “This is not going to be an artists’ colony at all,” Violet Oakley told reporters. “We have grown tired of working in the midst of trolley cars, drays, and all the noise of heavy traffic, so we are going where the green trees grow, where the cows roam, where the air is pure and quietness pre­vails.” But the lure of an eight­eenth century country estate inhabited by female artists was simply too newsworthy for the press to ignore. The original stone farmhouse had been constructed in 1786 by Moro Phillips on the plan of Stoke Poges, in Slough, England, and his son Frederick built additions and formal gardens. In these rambling structures, trellised with red roses and draped with white clematis, the artists found ample studio space and a residence suitable for gentlewomen. Curious reporters and journalists from ladies’ magazines were sur­prised to discover that the artists’ colony had also become the home of Violet Oakley’s mother, the parents of Eliza­beth Shippen Green, and Jessie Willcox Smith’s friend, Henrietta Cozens, a horticul­turist.

Art and life were indistin­guishable at the Red Rose. Posing for each other in the picturesque surroundings, the artists and their environment appeared – and reappeared – on the covers of American magazines. In Oakley’s cover of Everybody’s Magazine for June 1902, an elegant woman is reading a letter to Henrietta Cozens while she picks from a bower of pink roses cascading down the garden wall. Jessie Willcox Smith, a former kin­dergarten teacher who special­ized in pictures of children, created her most delightful illustrations by sketching her friends’ children at play. Her depiction of childhood in the 1905 edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses was drawn from the enchanting landscape and interiors of the Red Rose es­tate. The architecture set among the towering trees and violet-strewn lawns also pro­vided the imagery of Green’s illustrations for Country Life in America.

The careers of Oakley, Smith and Green soared while they lived at the Red Rose. During those years, Elizabeth Shippen Green became the first woman to be placed on contract with Harper’s Weekly, a position she maintained until 1924; Jessie Willcox Smith became so popular that she received as much as eighteen hundred dollars for a maga­zine cover, nearly ten times the usual fee; and Violet Oakley emerged as a mural painter and stained glass designer. But the idyll of the Red Rose ended abruptly in 1906 with the sale of the property. The trio was now sufficiently well­-off, however, to build anew their ideal residence.

Returning to Philadelphia, they jointly purchased an abandoned farm along the Cresheim Creek in the Wissa­hickon Valley and asked archi­tect Frank Miles Day to design a residence for them with studios and gardens. They christened the new estate “Cogslea,” an acronym of their last names, and lived there together until 1914 when Eliza­beth left to marry architect Huger Elliott. The couple built their home, “Little Garth,” nearby in the hollow of the Cresheim.

In spite of the close and continuous relationships of the three friends, their styles re­mained distinct. The critics noted that Oakley’s work “steadily approached the mys­tic meaning of things.” Her magazine covers often had religious overtones: a secular madonna in stained glass for a Christmas issue, an American Indian goddess of the harvest for Thanksgiving. These reli­gious and allegorical themes prompted the Church Glass and Decorating Company of New York to invite Oakley to try her hand at designing stained glass. The result was a window picturing the Epiph­any, the first of many designs for stained glass that Oakley produced for churches and private residences. This initial venture in stained glass proved to be a turning point in Oak­ley’s career. The Church Glass and Decorating Company awarded her the commission to decorate New York’s All Angels Church with murals, a mosaic and three lancet win­dows. Oakley’s huge painting, Heavenly Host, depicting a congregation of life-size angels flanking the altar, received a great deal of favorable public­ity and in this way, the news of a remarkable lady muralist reached the ears of Joseph Houston, the architect of Pennsylvania’s State Capitol.

In planning the decoration for his mammoth Renaissance Revival Capitol, Joseph Huston was determined to have the participation of the na­tion’s leading artists. His selec­tion of muralist Edwin Austin Abbey and sculptor George Gray Barnard, both well known to the public, caused no surprise, but his announce­ment that Violet Oakley would decorate the Governor’s Room caused a sensation. The word quickly spread across the country that something unex­pected had occurred. Head­lines exclaimed “Woman’s Hand To Ornament Capitol” and “Fair Artist To Wield The Brush.” Oakley was already known to Pennsylvanians as one of the ladies of the Red Rose, but Houston’s decision to employ her at Harrisburg made her, literally, an over­night success.

Houston asked Oakley to decorate the Governor’s Re­ception Room, one of the smaller chambers in his colos­sal granite edifice that was longer than Westminster Ab­bey and covered about two acres of center-city Harrisburg. The architect’s idea of an inti­mate space for the governor to receive visitors was a room seventy-one by twenty-seven feet, requiring a six foot wide mural frieze to be placed be­tween the dark oak paneling and intricate coffered ceiling. The scheme called for thirteen panels to be executed in oils on canvas and glued to walls upon the room’s completion.

From 1902 until 1906, Oak­ley labored on the Governor’s Reception Room murals, work­ing on scaffolding in an enor­mous studio at Cogslea which she had converted from a barn to accommodate the scale of the paintings. She was paid twenty thousand dollars for her efforts, a sum which ap­peared paltry when it was revealed that the building contractors were paid the same amount for merely installing the fittings in the smaller rooms of the Treasury Depart­ment. “Unfortunately Miss Oakley is not a contractor,” an editorial complained, “or her pictures might have been paid for more liberally by the foot or the pound.” Nevertheless, the Oakley murals, the first to be installed in the new build­ing, were unveiled to a crowd of thousands on the opening day and lauded by an enthusi­astic Gov. Samuel W. Penny­packer. An indication of how the public rated Oakley was a Philadelphia minister’s obser­vation that, among the babies he had recently baptized, five were named for Clara Barton, three for Lillian Russell, and two for Violet Oakley.

The appeal of Oakley’s “Romance of the Founding of the State of Liberty Spiritual” was based in part on her un­conventional representation of William Penn. Americans were accustomed to seeing William Penn depicted as a mature Quaker in the process of making a treaty with the Indians. The icon of this historic mo­ment was painted by Benjamin West in 1771 and remained the model for painters well into the twentieth century. In the senate chamber in Harrisburg, Abbey added another version of Penn’s Treaty and painted Penn as an allegorical figure in The Apotheosis of Pennsylvania. Oakley chose to picture the key moments of Penn’s youth in England which had never before been portrayed.

Oakley began her history of the ideas that shaped Penn’s concept of religious freedom a century earlier than the found­ing of Pennsylvania, with William Tyndale’s unauthor­ized English translation of the New Testament in 1525 and the subsequent burning of his books at Oxford. She chroni­cled the martyrdom of Tyndale in 1536, the condemnation of Anne Askew as a heretic in 1546 and the climax of intoler­ance in the Civil War of 1646. Oakley believed that these epoch-making events had inspired Penn to establish a haven of religious tolerance in America. She introduced Penn as a mystical young man studying at Oxford, and showed his arrest, trial and imprisonment in Newgate, during which he wrote The Great Case of Liberty of Con­science, destined to change the world forever. Despairing of justice in England, Penn bade farewell to the Friends. Oakley concluded with a depiction of a melancholy Penn at the prow of his ship Welcome, gazing into the future as he sailed to the land that would bear his name.

In order to make the mural series authentic, Oakley jour­neyed to England to study the life of Penn at Oxford and to examine the places where he studied, preached and was held prisoner. The muralist was the historian of the people and Oakley insisted that the architecture, costumes, fur­nishings, each detail of her compositions be historically accurate. She captioned each panel in the manner of illustrations, with scrolls of manu­script in the style of Howard Pyle. In a brief journey around the room, the viewer could learn the history of the princi­ples on which the Common­wealth of Pennsylvania was founded.

When Edwin Austin Abbey died suddenly in 1911, before he had even begun to work on the Senate Chamber and the Supreme Court room, Oakley was asked to complete the remaining portion of his com­mission. In the huge Senate Chamber, walled in dark green marble, the problems facing the muralist were considera­ble. The plan required a single panel of forty-four feet in length on one wall in addition to relatively smaller panels that were still larger than any­thing Oakley had painted in the Governor’s Room. She picked up the theme of the founding of the State, painting an ensemble of historical scenes entitled The Creation and Preservation of the Union.

The murals for the Senate Chamber were shaped by the actual historical crisis of the time, the eruption of World War I. “When at the beginning of the Balkan troubles in the Autumn of 1912,” she re­flected, “I was in London at work upon the theme for the paintings in the Senate Cham­ber, a short distance from where we were staying … were gathered in St. James Palace the representatives of the nations, in their conference striving to avert by means of wisest diplomacy the threat­ened European conflagration.” In the urgency of the moment, she conceived the figure of Unity as the center of an alle­gory representing the end of warfare and slavery, entitled The Prophecy of William Penn. Penn had wisely foreseen the necessity of international gov­ernment. In 1693, he pub­lished Essay Toward the Present and Future Peace of Europe by the Establishment of a European Dyet, Parliament, or Estates, the first blueprint for a world court. Oakley imagined the preservation of the Union on the global scale. Without Penn’s principles of confedera­tion, war was inevitable.

During World War I, Oakley had become a member of the Women’s League for Peace and Freedom, an organization founded by her friend, Jane Addams. The Quaker reformer seemed to Oakley the very embodiment of Penn’s spirit at work in the world. Oakley’s admiration for this great woman is evident in the frieze of the Senate Chamber, where she placed to the right of the figure of Unity a portrait of Addams holding a scroll of William Penn’s principles.

From 1917 until 1927, Oak­ley worked on the murals for the Supreme Court Room. She had come to realize that all of her murals at the State Capitol actually traced the history of liberties established by law. The sixteen murals of the Su­preme Court, The Opening of the Book of the Law, represent the culmination of her political ideals. “When her task was done,” Malcolm Vaughn of the New York Herald-Tribune noted, “Violet Oakley had raised in the Capitol of Penn­sylvania an international altar to the Victory of Law over Force.”

In The Opening of the Book of the Law, each panel is de­signed as an illuminated page of the Law. Oakley treated the law as sacred scripture, record­ing the great lawmakers of the world: Moses, Justinian, Blackstone, William Penn and John Marshall. In Oakley’s Book of the Law, all the law­making events in world history were leading to international law. She included the negotiat­ing table of the League of Nations in her series as the most recent evolution of the law. This was a bold statement to make in a civic building, since the United States had decided against participation in the League of Nations, much to Oakley’s disappoint­ment. But it was a measure of the power of her ideas and the esteem in which she was held, that no objection was made by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

For the rest of her life, Vio­let Oakley carefully followed the political developments of the international courts. She moved to Geneva when the League of Nations was in session and attended its meetings. In order to promote the League, she drew portraits of the delegates and exhibited them in Europe and through­out the United States. Even as war raged, Oakley hoped to further the cause of peace; during World War II, she painted portable altarpieces that were placed in the chapels on military bases and battle­ships. When a new interna­tional court, the United Nations, was organized, the Philadelphia Bulletin commis­sioned Oakley to make a set of portraits of the latest warriors for peace.

Violet Oakley devoted most of her art and life to convinc­ing people that ideals could build a real world. Her exten­sive work on the political phi­losophy of William Penn in the Pennsylvania State Capitol demonstrates the way in which the uncovered past shaped the values of the fu­ture. She was, truly, a Pennsyl­vanian whose contributions to art and global politics were international.

 

For Further Reading

Likos, Patricia. Violet Oakley, 1874-1961. Philadelphia: Phila­delphia Museum of Art, 1979.

Oakley, Violet. Cathedral of Compassion: Dramatic Out­line of the Life of Jane Addams. Philadelphia: Women’s Interna­tional League for Peace and Free­dom, 1955.

____. The Holy Experi­ment: Our Heritage from Wil­liam Penn. Philadelphia: Cogslea Studio Publications, 1950.

____. Law Triumphant. Philadelphia: N.P., 1933.

____. Samuel F.B. Morse: The Father of Telegraphy and The Founder of the National Academy of Design. Philadel­phia: Cogslea Studio Publications, 1939.

Pitz, Henry C. The Brandywine Tradition. New York: Weather­vane Books, 1968.

Richman, Irwin. Pennsylvania’s Painters. University Park, Pa., Pennsylvania Historical Associa­tion, 1983.

Stryker, Catherine Connell. The Studios at Cogslea. Wilmington: Delaware Art Mu­seum, 1976.

Women Artists in the Howard Pyle Tradition. Chadds Ford, Pa.: Brandywine River Museum, 1975.

 

Patricia Likos, a resident of Phila­delphia, received her doctorate from Bryn Mawr College. An art historian, she has researched selected Pennsylvania artists, specializing in subjects which have previously received little or no attention. She has also coordi­nated three retrospective exhibi­tions on Pennsylvania painters that had never before been mounted: “Violet Oakley (1874-1961)” for the Philadelphia Mu­seum of Art in 1979; “Julius Bloch: A Portrait of the Artist” for the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1983; and “Henry C. Pitz: The Art of the Book” for the Brandy­wine River Museum, Chadds Ford, in 1988. Site continues to devote research to Violet Oakley and her group.