2008 Honorees


Violet Oakley

Muralist/ Stained Glass Artist  

Violet Oakley was born in Bergen Heights, New Jersey.  Her family was very interested in the arts, but Violet’s formal art training was rather sporadic.  She studied at the Arts Student League in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and at various institutions abroad during summer trips.  Most of her training came from copying works of old masters.

When she was 22 years old, her family moved to Philadelphia where Oakley soon entered Howard Pyle's illustration class at Drexel Institute.  Influenced greatly by the Pre-Raphaelites, she used color and luminosity to portray philosophical beliefs.  Under Pyle’s tutelage, she flourished. Designing covers for Century Magazine, St. Nicholas, Woman's Home Companion, and other popular magazines, she became one of America's most popular illustrators.  She also gained a reputation as a talented designer of stained glass. 

In 1902, the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania capitol architect, Joseph Huston, asked Violet Oakley to paint murals for the Governor's Reception Room. Huston believed that choosing Oakley would "act as an encouragement of women and the State."  The Capitol project signaled a milestone in the history of American art, for it was the largest public commission given to an American woman up to that time.  In addition, this commission as a muralist allowed Oakley to transcend the conventional roles of women painters as either portrait or genre painters. Instead, she was able to pursue a successful career in the prestigious, but overwhelmingly masculine, field of mural decoration. 

Her mural, “The Founding of the State of Liberty Spiritual”, depicted the story of William Penn and the founding of Pennsylvania.  To research and design the fourteen scenes of this mural, she conducted extensive research on the subject, even traveling to England. 

She became the first woman to receive the Gold Medal of Honor from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  In 1911, she obtained the commission to create 26 murals for Pennsylvania’s Senate Chambers and the Supreme Court.

Not only was Violet Oakley a talented artist, she was also involved in the Woman’s Suffrage Movement.  She was also devoted to the ideals of international government and world peace.  When the United States refused to join the League of Nations in 1927, Oakley went to Geneva herself as a self-appointed ambassador.  Through all her decades of visionary murals, Oakley sought to express her desire and hope for "world peace, equal rights, and faith in the work of unification of the people of the earth.”