"For the first time in the history of American art,” the Philadelphia Press reported in 1902, “a woman is to be entrusted with the mural decorations for a great public building.”1 The news of Violet Oakley’s mural commission for the Pennsylvania State Capitol made her a national celebrity overnight. At the turn of the twentieth century, artists prized the lucrative commissions to paint murals in the classically inspired public buildings that were springing up in American cities. That a twenty-eight-year-old woman had been selected instead of an established male artist was newsworthy. But Oakley was not merely a “woman artist”; she was an artistic prodigy. The year before, she had received accolades for her decorative ensemble of murals, mosaic, and stained glass for All Angels Church in New York. The architect of the Pennsylvania State Capitol, Joseph Miller Huston, himself just thirty-five years old, publicly stated that he chose Oakley “purely because of the superior excellence of her work.”2 At a time when the woman’s suffrage movement was gaining momentum in state legislatures and public opinion was polarized about the role of women in society, Huston’s decision to employ Oakley was a political statement. To convince the skeptical Board of Commissioners to approve her commission, he argued that entrusting one room in the capitol to a “distinguished woman painter of Pennsylvania” would be “an encouragement of women of the State.”3 Progressive newspapers enthusiastically broadcast the decision with the headlines “Woman Pioneer as Decorator of Great Capitol” and “Brilliant Young Woman Commissioned to Paint Mural Decoration.”4
Ultimately Oakley was awarded three government-funded mural commissions. The State of Pennsylvania hired her to decorate the Governor’s Grand Executive Reception Room in 1902, and the Senate Chamber and Supreme Court Chamber in 1911 to replace chief muralist Edwin Austin Abbey, who died that year. Oakley would devote a total of twenty-five years to the Pennsylvania State Capitol. She received a third civic mural commission from the Cuyahoga County Courthouse in Cleveland, Ohio, which she executed concurrently with the capitol murals from 1911 to 1915.
American Renaissance murals were usually painted in the artist’s studio, rather than on site. The preferred medium was oil on canvas, which was attached to the wall with lead white, a French method known as marouflage. Muralists typically employed studio assistants who helped prepare the huge canvases. To ensure that preparatory studies were not distorted when they were scaled up, muralists often photographed the drawings and projected them at the desired scale on the canvas. All of Oakley’s civic murals were painted on scaffolding in her studio at Cogslea in the West Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. She executed her murals for the governor’s reception room without assistants, but after receiving the commission for the Senate Chamber and the Supreme Court Chamber, she employed Edith Emerson, a student in her mural painting class at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, as an apprentice. A master draughtsman, Oakley made hundreds of preparatory studies for the capitol murals. She drew from live models and photographed them for reference. Numerous compositional drawings indicate that she transferred her images to canvas by hand using the traditional grid method.
Civic mural paintings placed intellectual demands on artists who were expected to design thematic programs celebrating iconic events with historical narratives or extolling government, industry, commerce, and culture in allegorical form. Muralists were recruited from the ranks of illustrators or history painters accustomed to communicating unambiguous messages to the viewing public. Although Oakley was a professional illustrator for six years prior to her first capitol commission, she was also trained in stained glass design, which gave her murals a distinctive style. She outlined her figures and placed them on the same ground line in a shallow space close to the picture plane. Virtually all of her murals had inscriptions incorporated in borders. In The Opening of the Book of the Law series for the Supreme Court Chamber, inscriptions fill about a third of each painting. To emphasize the spiritual dimension of civic virtues, she modified the formats of early Renaissance altarpieces for several panels in the Senate Chamber.
Oakley’s murals were unconventional in their subject matter and visual organization. Instead of scenes of heroism on the battlefield, set-pieces of civic mural painting, she depicted politically charged images that critiqued the policies of governments throughout history. She portrayed enslaved African Americans in several panels and produced the only mural of the slave trade in a civic building. She interpreted American history as part of the progress of universal history and departed from standard practice by incorporating contemporary people and events. The murals in each capitol chamber were designed as a pictorial history chronicling a specific theme, and all three chambers were linked by the overarching theme of inevitable world progress toward peace and justice.
Oakley’s contemporaries recognized her unique achievement in civic mural painting with awards, medals, and honorary degrees, and, in 1950, she was designated a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Public Ledger’s prediction in 1913 that Oakley’s commission for the Pennsylvania State Capitol was a “sure token of the artistic immortality of a woman, an immortality that would only terminate with the destruction of the capitol itself” rings true more than a century later.5
1 “Capitol Commission Names Artists,” Philadelphia Press, July 23, 1902.
2 Philadelphia Press, July 21, 1902.
3 Pennsylvania Capitol Documentary History, vol. 2, 335.
4 “Woman Pioneer,” Philadelphia Record, November 1, 1903; “Brilliant young woman to paint murals at Pennsylvania’s new capitol,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 29, 1903.
5 “Violet Oakley, an artist scholar who teaches and preaches with paint,” Philadelphia Public Ledger, June 12, 1913