Although Violet Oakley became known primarily for her mural commissions, she began her professional career as a freelance illustrator and would intermittently create drawings for print publications. From 1897 to 1908 she produced illustrations for national magazines, and in 1934 she would do so for Christian Science publications, such as the Christian Science Monitor, Christian Science Sentinel, and Christian Science Journal.
In 1896, the hospitalization of Oakley’s father for neurasthenia in Philadelphia consumed the family’s finances and compelled Oakley to contribute to the support of the household. She withdrew from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and sought training in the lucrative field of illustration from Howard Pyle at Drexel Institute (now Drexel University). Pyle trained a generation of successful illustrators, including N. C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Maxfield Parrish, Jessie Willcox Smith, and Elizabeth Shippen Green. After he arranged a commission for Oakley and Smith to illustrate Longfellow’s Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie in 1897, both women received other opportunities to illustrate magazines and books.1 Oakley and her sister Hester Caldwell Oakley, a Vassar-educated writer, sold illustrated stories to the periodical press. Over the course of the next decade, Oakley contributed illustrations to Woman’s Home Companion, McClure’s Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Saint Nicholas Magazine, Century Magazine, Collier’s Weekly, and Everybody’s Magazine.
Unlike her colleagues, Oakley did not strive to develop a signature style, but rather experimented with contemporary painting styles. Her original painting of two elegant women plucking pink roses for the June 1902 cover of Everybody’s Magazine won the purchase prize at PAFA’s 72nd Annual Exhibition. Her Egyptian revival drawings for “The Story of Vashti” by George M. Baxter in the December 1902 issue of Everybody’s Magazine won the gold medal in illustration at the Saint Louis Exposition of 1904.
The exact number and extent of Oakley’s illustrations is not known because it was not the practice of publishers to return original drawings. A list of magazine and book illustrations from 1896 to 1908 has been compiled by Bailey Van Hook in Violet Oakley: An Artist’s Life.2
1 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin Co.), 1897; illustrations by Violet Oakley on pp. 10, 38, 50, 88, 120.
2Bailey van Hook, Violet Oakley: An Artist’s Life (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2016): 377–79.