Connect with us – Art History Stories

Violet Oakley: A Grand Vision by a female muralist

Museums And Exhibitions

Violet Oakley: A Grand Vision by a female muralist

1906, Philadelphia, USA and a historic moment in art was unfolding in the Pennsylvania Capitol Building.  A series of murals depicting ‘The Founding of the State of Liberty Spiritual’ were being installed in the Governor’s Reception Room and unveiled to a large crowd.  The reason for the historical nature of this installation?  It was the first to be commissioned from a female artist: Violet Oakley.  The success of this series resulted in Violet Oakley being commissioned to complete friezes in other areas of the Capitol: the Senate and Supreme Court Chambers.  For over 25 years, Oakley worked on a total of 43 murals.

Violet Oakley: A Grand Vision

Violet Oakley; Bain News Service, Publisher/Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

How had this commission come about? Violet Oakley was born into an artistic family in New Jersey, in 1874. Naturally, Violet began studying in New York in 1892 before moving to England and France the following year to continue her studies.  When she returned to the United States in 1896, Violet Oakley carried on her studies for a short time before she became an illustrator for a number of magazines.  The style of her work showed her interest in Victorian art, especially the Pre-Raphaelites in England.

Violet Oakley: A Grand Vision

Penn’s Vision by Violet Oakley (oil paint over printed base) Pennsylvania State Capitol.

It was the ‘renaissance’ influence that gave Violet Oakley the edge in the commission that started the work for which she is so well-known.  The first series depicted the story of the founding of Pennsylvania by William Penn.

Oakley researched the subject thoroughly, even visiting England to research Penn’s life there.  As a Quaker, Penn’s views and beliefs were close to her heart and in this frieze, Oakley shows William Penn leading a group of fellow Quakers and other oppressed Christians to the new land he had acquired from the King of England that was to pay off a debt,  with the inscription:


The success of the first series led to Oakley completing another frieze with the title “International Unity and Understanding”. Inaugurated in 1917, America joined the war shortly afterward, delivering a sense of irony to the vision she expressed of a unified and peaceful world.



Violet Oakley: A Grand Vision

Violet Oakley’s murals in the State Capitol, Harrisburg.

Violet Oakley’s work immediately brought her further success.  Banker, Charlton Yarnall, felt that Oakley’s talents would be well placed in his new neo-renaissance mansion in Philadelphia.  Oakley used the theme of wisdom and how the child needs the exposure of the arts in order to develop. In the shape of a lunette, the three panels show how the child grows into a man through his formative years:

Violet Oakley: A Grand Vision

The Child and Tradition © Woodmere Art Gallery, Philadelphia

The child is surrounded by the greats of philosophy and literature: Confucius (lower left); Solomon (left); Cicero (lower right); and Dante, preceded by his courtly, idealized love, Beatrice (right). Oakley’s use of symbolism with the staircase on the left shows the route upwards to the next stage.

Youth and the Arts was the second instalment of the story:

Violet Oakley: A Grand Vision

Youth and the Arts (1910-1911) © Woodmere Art Gallery, Philadelphia

The young man in the centre is the child in the first lunette and here he is surrounded by talented musicians. Oakley’s detail in the three dresses is stunning and in the outer half circle, she has placed the objects that contribute to the scene.

The third and final part, Man and Science, Oakley depicts the young man as a father himself.  The family looks out onto Florence; home of the Renaissance and the attitudes of the characters indicates their love and respect for the land that they see as the home of art, culture and science.

Violet Oakley: A Grand Vision

Man and Science (1910-1911) © Woodmere Art Gallery, Philadelphia


The murals are only part of Violet Oakley’s oeuvre.  Currently, an exhibition is being held at Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia entitled A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and The American Renaissance which explores not only her work as a muralist, but as a stained glass designer, illustrator and portraitist.

It’s the last chance to see this exhibition! It is going to be closed on 21st of January.

Violet Oakley: A Grand Vision

Portrait of Italian Coloratura Soprano Amelita Galli-Curci (1918) Pastel on Paper © Woodmere Art Gallery, Philadelphia


For more information:



Teacher by trade; art lover by choice. Like all manner of artists and movements but somehow always end up back in 1910!


More in Museums And Exhibitions

  • 20th century

    Black Is Beautiful: Kwame Brathwaite at the Skirball Center


    Let’s play a game: pick up any magazine from a U.S. newsstand and count how many people of color are featured. Now try playing with a magazine from the 1950’s. Depending on which magazine you chose, the difference may not be all that striking. But the...

  • Lee Krasner Gaea Lee Krasner Gaea

    20th century

    Lee Krasner and the Art of Starting Over


    Lee Krasner’s name has become much more widely known in recent years. Often referred to as the wife of Jackson Pollock, she was, of course, a great artist in her own right. The Barbican Gallery in London is currently holding the biggest presentation of her work...

  • 20th century

    Natalia Goncharova First Time in London


    We couldn’t have asked for a better birthday gift for Natalia Goncharova: a month before her birthday Tate Modern in London is presenting the first retrospective of her work in the UK ever. The exhibition opens on June, 6th. The date of her birth might be confusing, some say...

  • Monumental Paintings of Lucian Freud Monumental Paintings of Lucian Freud


    The Monumental Paintings of Lucian Freud


    The paintings in the Lucian Freud: Monumental exhibition in Acquavella Gallery on the Upper East Side in New York City are monumental in many ways, and the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition feels monumental as well. Freud originally painted with fine sable brushes, standing intimately close...

  • Leonardo and Warhol Leonardo and Warhol


    The Genius Experience: Leonardo and Warhol at the Crypt of San Sepolcro


    Two protagonists of their respective eras, the Renaissance genius and the father of pop art, collide together in Milan, despite four centuries of distance, in an immersive journey. During 2019, various events and activities are being held to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s...

To Top

Just to let you know, DailyArt Magazine’s website uses cookies to personalise content and adverts, to provide social media features and to analyse traffic. Read cookies policy