Violet Oakley (June 10, 1874 – February 25, 1961) was an American artist. She was the first American woman to receive a public mural commission. During the first quarter of the twentieth century, she was renowned as a pathbreaker in mural decoration, a field that had been exclusively practiced by men. Oakley excelled at murals and stained glass designs that addressed themes from history and literature in Renaissance-revival styles.
Oakley was born in Bergen Heights (a section of Jersey City), New Jersey, into a family of artists. Her parents were Arthur Edmund Oakley and Cornelia Swain. Both of her grandfathers were member of the National Academy of Design. In 1892, she studied at the Art Students League of New York with James Carroll Beckwith and Irving R. Wiles. A year later, she studied in England and France, under Raphaël Collin and others. After her return to the United States in 1896, she studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before she joined Howard Pyle's famous illustration class at Drexel Institute. She had early success as a popular illustrator for magazines including The Century Magazine, Collier's Weekly, St. Nicholas Magazine, and Woman's Home Companion. The style of her illustrations and stained glass reflects her emulation of the English Pre-Raphaelites. Oakley's commitment to Victorian aesthetics during the advent of Modernism led to the decline of her reputation by the middle of the twentieth century.
Oakley's political beliefs were shaped by the Quaker William Penn (1644–1718) whose ideals she represented in her murals at the Pennsylvania State Capitol. She became committed to the Quaker principles of pacifism, equality of the races and sexes, economic and social justice, and international government. When the United States refused to join the League of Nations after the Great War, Oakley went to Geneva, Switzerland, and spent three years drawing portraits of the League's delegates which she published in her portfolio, "Law Triumphant" (Philadelphia, 1932). She was an early advocate of nuclear disarmament after World War II.
Oakley was raised in the Episcopal church but in 1903 became a devoted student of Christian Science after a significant healing of asthma while she was doing preparatory study for the first set of Harrisburg murals in Florence, Italy. She was a member of Second Church of Christ, Scientist, Philadelphia from 1912, when it was organized, until her death in 1961.
She received many honors through her life including an honorary Doctorate of Laws Degree in 1948 from Drexel Institute. At the 1904 Saint Louis International Exposition, Oakley won the gold medal in illustration for her watercolors for "The Story of Vashti," and the silver medal in mural decoration for her murals at All Angels' Church. In 1905, she became the first woman to receive the Gold Medal of Honor from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1915, Oakley was awarded the Medal of Honor in the painting category at the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco for her 1912 portrait of Philadelphia poet Florence Earle Coates as "The Tragic Muse".
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