Violet Oakley

Posted by: Valetta

By Valetta, Regional Center for Women in the Arts

This brief biography of Violet Oakley, born in Bergan Heights, New Jersey in 1874, tells less about the artist than the images of her work printed here. To this day Ms. Oakley remains the premier American muralist on par with Mexico’s Diego Rivera. That she was a shy, petite woman, in contrast to the bombastic and large Rivera, only serves to illustrate and heighten the power of her work.

As a child, Violet suffered from asthma and extreme shyness, but coming from a family of artists provided her a roadway to participate fully in life. Her parents encouraged her and her older sister to study painting and drawing. Violet, in poor health, began her studies at home copying the old masters. At the age of twenty she was permitted to accompany her father on the morning train to New York to attend classes at the Art Students League. The following year her family took an extended vacation in Europe where she and her sister enrolled in the all-female Academic Montparnasse in Paris. When they returned home, the sisters rented a studio in Philadelphia and Violet took courses at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The following year she studied at Drexel University with Howard Pyle, an influential teacher and illustrator. It was there she met Jessie Wilcox who became a life-long friend. They and fellow artist Elizabeth Shippen Green became known as the Red Rose Girls, and along with Henrietta Cozens, the women set up house in

Violet Oakley worked in the style of the Pre-Raphaelites with strong, heroic women filling her illustrations and murals. We in the region are fortunate to be able to visit her monumental art works at such places as the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg, the Delaware Museum of Art in Wilmington, the First Presbyterian Church in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, and of course at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Violet Oakley received the Academy’s Gold Medal Award for distinguished service. Her legacy, along with a substantial body of remarkable work, which includes commissioned portraits for the first delegates to the League of Nations and United Nations, lies in her efforts on behalf of world peace. disarmament and human rights. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement and had she lived past her 87th birthday in 196J, she would no doubt have participated with gusto in the feminist and civil rights movements as well.

The above drawing is by Violet Oakley.

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