Born in 1874, illustrator and muralist Violet Oakley was a groundbreaking American artist who gained recognition, accolades and commissions for her work at a time when women artists were significantly undervalued and overlooked. Born into an artistic family in New Jersey, Oakley began her training at the Art Students League of New York, followed by studies in England and France. She returned to the United States in 1896 and studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (PAFA) before joining Howard Pyle‘s famous illustration class at Drexel Institute, and it was this city would become her lifelong home.
Oakley had early success as a popular illustrator for magazines that included The Century Magazine, Collier’s Weekly, St. Nicholas Magazine, and Woman’s Home Companion. In 1902 architect Joseph M. Huston chose Oakley to decorate the new Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, the beginning of the young artist’s twenty-five year career of creating murals for state buildings in Harrisburg. In total, she crafted forty-three.
Art and politics were inextricably linked for Oakley. When the United States refused to join the League of Nations after the Great War, Oakley went to Geneva, Switzerland, and spent three years drawing portraits of the League’s delegates which she published in her portfolio, “Law Triumphant” in 1932. She was also an early advocate of nuclear disarmament after World War II.
Within her field, Oakley functioned as a protofeminist. She, along with fellow artists Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Willcox Smith, became known as the “Red Rose Girls,” transforming the Red Rose Inn on the Philadelphia Main Line into a communal art gallery, where the women lived and worked together—something quite revolutionary that pushed against the strict gender roles of her time. She was also instrumental in establishing The Plastic Club in Philadelphia (to promote “art for art’s sake”), as well as the Philadelphia Art Alliance.
Oakley received many honors throughout her life including an honorary Doctorate of Laws Degree in 1948 from Drexel Institute. In 1905, she became the first woman to receive the Gold Medal of Honor from the PAFA. Posthumously, Oakley’s studio in Philadelphia was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and she was elected to the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 1996.