June 10, 1874
She lived in a man’s world, yet she wasn’t afraid to speak up for what she believed in. She believed in equality of the races and sexes, she believed in economic and social justice, and she believed in world peace.
She was born into a family of artists on June 10, 1874, representing the third generation in her family who pursued art. Both grandfathers were members of the National Academy of Design. Her mother studied the American Renaissance. She battled asthma during her entire life, believed so frail that she was unable to attend college. But, because of her family’s art background, she was able to study art with prominent artists in the United States, England, and France.
She became a talented and prolific artist, who was the first American woman to receive a public mural commission, in a field that had been exclusively practiced by men. Aside from being a muralist, she was also a painter, a portraitist, a stained-glass designer, a manuscript illuminator, an illustrator, an author, and a speaker.
At a time before women had the right to vote, Violet Oakley “gained prominence as an artist at a time when women’s artwork was generally considered inferior to that of men [and] worked for the recognition of women in male-dominated institutions in the arts and literature,” according to the Mary Baker Eddy Library. As an illustrator, Oakley’s images helped promote women as confident and educated.
Oakley achieved international fame for her prestigious government commissions for the Pennsylvania State Capitol, becoming the first American woman to receive a public mural commission.
She proved that a woman could not only succeed but create masterpieces in a medium dominated by men. Grand themes of the quest for peace and freedom, undergirded by vigilance and diligence —two qualities she greatly valued in humanity’s quest for peace — resonate through her works,” according to the Mary Baker Eddy Library.
For the Senate chamber murals, “The Creation and Preservation of the Union”, Oakley illustrated how the Quaker principles, particularly those of racial equality and nonviolence, played out in the founding and defense of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The panel, “The Slave Ship Ransomed,” depicts the story of a Quaker who purchased a ship of enslaved Africans in order to free them in Nova Scotia where slavery was illegal. In the mural, “Unity,”she welcomes African Americans and immigrants into the New Jerusalem.
She stated that she hoped the murals would serve as a “testament to the world.”
Oakley was politically active, supporting the League of Nations, the United Nations, and Cold War nuclear disarmament. When the United States refused to join the League of Nations in 1927, she went to Geneva, Switzerland, as a self-appointed ambassador, spending three years drawing portraits of the League’s delegates which she published in her portfolio, “Law Triumphant”.
She was also known as one of the “Red Rose Girls,” who along with fellow artists Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Willcox Smith “transformed the Red Rose Inn on Philadelphia’s Main Line into a communal art gallery, where the women lived and worked together — something quite revolutionary that pushed against the strict gender roles of the time,” according to the Mary Baker Eddy Library.
Scholar Charlotte Herzog states the women “were not only financially but also professionally, emotionally, and physically independent”, documenting, according to writer Erin Blakemore “the ways in which the women’s lifestyle afforded them both the freedom and the support to do the unthinkable — focus on career over marriage or traditional roles.”
This “in a climate that was difficult, if not outright hostile, for women in art, according to Herzog.
According to Herzog, it’s unclear whether the women’s close relationships were romantic, suggesting they may have been engaged in a “Boston Marriage”. Herzog, states, however, that “the degree of their physical intimacy will, perhaps, never be known.”
Oakley would make extensive contributions to Philadelphia institutions and to the American Renaissance revival, working up to the last day of her life. She died in Philadelphia on February 25, 1961.
During much of her lifetime, she was considered the most distinguished woman painter in the United States, according to the Mary Baker Eddy Library. “But her name fell into relative obscurity after World War II. By the early 1970s, however, there was an increased interest in the artistic styles she championed, and that has led to a deeper interest in her works and those of her colleagues. In 1977 Oakley’s studio in Philadelphia was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, as recognition for her multifaceted genius.”
She is remembered for her decades of visionary murals and her desire and hope for “world peace, equal rights, and faith in the work of unification of the people of the earth.”