A leading figure in American art throughout her lifetime, Violet Oakley (1874 -1961) was a painter, muralist, illustrator, portraitist, architectural and industrial designer, writer, civic leader, and advocate for world peace.
Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, she came to Philadelphia to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), where she studied with the great portraitist Cecelia Beaux. She left PAFA to attend Drexel University, where she studied with the renowned illustrator Howard Pyle. Oakley, together with her Drexel classmates Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Wilcox Smith, were named the “Red Rose Girls” by Pyle. They lived in the Red Rose Inn in Villanova, Pennsylvania, each of them working independently to become a successful illustrator. Together with a fourth friend, Henrietta Cozens, who lived with them and maintained the communal household, they moved to Mount Airy in 1906 at the encouragement of Oakley’s friends Gertrude and George Woodward.
Oakley is counted among the principle figures of the American Renaissance, a movement of artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who advocated for the cultural renewal and spiritual revitalization of American life. She followed in the footsteps of Beaux as the second woman hired to teach at PAFA. Oakley achieved national fame when, in 1906, she completed a series of murals in the Governor’s Reception Rooms in the Pennsylvania State Capitol. Impressed by these murals, banker Charlton Yarnall commissioned Oakley to create a series of murals for the entrance hall and music room of his new neo-renaissance mansion at 17th and Locusts Streets in Philadelphia. The murals, titled Building the House of Wisdom (1911), are considered to be among Oakley’s greatest achievements, and they are now among the great treasures in Woodmere’s collection. In 1911, she was selected to complete two additional suites of murals in the Pennsylvania State Capitol, one in the Senate Chamber (completed in1917), the other the Supreme Court Chamber (completed 1927).
Oakley was an advocate for racial equality, women’s rights, economic and social justice, and international government. When the United States did not join the League of Nations after World War I, Oakley went to Geneva Switzerland and spent three years making portraits of the assembled delegates from across the globe, many of which were published in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin and in her portfolio, "Law Triumphant" (1932). Many of these portraits are in Woodmere’s collection.
An advocate for local artists, Oakley participated in the founding of numerous arts organizations in Philadelphia, including the Plastic Club, the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and the Plays and Players Theatre. She was a driving force in the life of Woodmere Art Museum and a support to Edith Emerson, her life partner, who was the museum’s director from the early 1940s through 1978. Emerson, with the encouragement of Oakley, formalized Woodmere’s mission to celebrate, collect, and interpret the art and culture of Philadelphia.