Biography: Violet Oakley (1874-1961) was born in Bergen Heights, New Jersey, the daughter of Arthur Edmund Oakley and Cornelia Swain Oakley. With two grandfathers who were members of the National Academy of Design and numerous relatives involved in the arts, she found her early efforts at drawing encouraged. She once described her desire to paint as hereditary and chronic.
She studied at the Art Students League in New York in 1892 and after almost a year left for Paris to study for another year with the noted portraitist Edmund Aman-Jean. She also spent a summer studying in England. In 1896 she returned to Philadelphia and enrolled briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with Cecilia Beaux. In 1897, she began her 3-year study with Howard Pyle 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. Pyle's recognition of her sense of color and ability in composition caused him to push her toward stained glass design and work in a larger scale than illustration allowed. The artist herself always felt that Pyle had been one of the two main influences on her work, with the other being the Pre-Raphaelites.
By 1899 she had received her first commission for a stained glass window. From then on, she never returned full time to illustration but continued to work in large scale. Her stained-glass sites included All Saints Church (New York City). In 1902, her first commission was to design and execute murals for the Governor's Reception Room in the new Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her theme was the founding of the colony of Pennsylvania. After nearly four years' work, the Capitol murals were unveiled in 1906. They were immediately praised by leading art critics of the day, and Oakley received several prestigious awards for them. She continued mural work for Pennsylvania State buildings in Harrisburg, eventually completing 43 scenes in various rooms, as well as for the Senate and the Supreme Court.
At the same time she completed six illuminated manuscripts, and a book summarizing her research on the murals, and she undertook the decoration of the Alumnae House at Vassar. Her other college site for murals included Sarah Lawrence and Bryn Mawr. Oakley was also an accomplished portraitist.
Initially an Anglican, Oakley became affiliated with Christian Science. Subsequently, she became committed to Quaker principles of pacifism, racial and sexual equality, and international social justice. In 1927, she traveled to Switzerland to record the founding of the League of Nations. She exhibited her work from this trip in prominent locations along the mid-Atlantic coast, including the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts.
Violet Oakley continued to work until the day of her death, February 25, 1961. She received many awards throughout the 1930s and '40s for her work. In 1948, Drexel Institute awarded her an honorary Doctorate of Laws Degree.
Delaware Art Museum archives