Violet Oakley papers

A Finding Aid to the Violet Oakley Papers

Helen Farr Sloan Library, Delaware Art Museum

Wilmington, Delaware

Extent: 2 linear feet
Access: Unrestricted
Revised: Sarena Deglin, 2003
Contact Information:

Helen Farr Sloan Library
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE 19806



Biography of Violet Oakley
Scope and Contents Note
Organization of the papers
Description of the papers


Violet Oakley was born June 10, 1874, in Bergen Heights, New Jersey, the daughter of Arthur Edmund Oakley and Cornelia Swain Oakley. With two grandfathers who were members of the National Academy of Design and a multitude of relatives involved in the arts, she found her early efforts at drawing heartily encouraged. She once described her desire to paint as hereditary and chronic.

Violet Oakley studied at the Art Students League in New York and after almost a year left for Paris to study with a noted portraitist of the day, Edmund Aman-Jean. She also spent a summer studying in England. In 1896 she returned to Philadelphia and enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She did not remain there long, for in 1897 she began her study with Howard Pyle at Drexel Institute. Pyle’s recognition of her sense of color and ability in composition caused him to push her toward stained glass design and work in a larger scale than illustration allowed. The artist herself always felt that Pyle had been one of the two main influences on her work, the other being the Pre-Raphaelites. By 1899 she had received her first commission for a stained glass window. From this early point on, she never returned full time to illustration but continued to work in large scale.

The first and most important commission of Violet Oakley’s career was to design and execute murals for the Governor’s Reception Room in the new Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She was awarded the commission in 1902, and after six months of study in Europe she began work. Her theme was the founding of the colony of Pennsylvania. Through the study of the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, she found beliefs which formed the cornerstone of her life.

Violet Oakley was affiliated with the Christian Science Church, however, and always felt that faith to its tenets had helped her cure herself of severe and chronic asthma. She also felt that this belief aided her physically and spiritually in the completion of the large murals she continued to paint throughout her life.

After nearly four years’ work, the Capitol murals were unveiled in 1906. They were immediately praised by leading art critics of the day, and Violet Oakley received several prestigious awards for them.

Violet Oakley had done some illustration during the Harrisburg commission but, after she became known for these murals, she was moved further into mural and stained glass commissions and away from illustration. In 1911, Edwin Austin Abbey, the artist responsible for the major portion of the Harrisburg murals, died. She was given the balance of the commission, which included the Senate Chamber and the Supreme Court Room. For the next nineteen years she struggled with the nine murals for the Senate Chamber and the sixteen murals for the Supreme Court Room. At the same time she completed six illuminated manuscripts, and a book summarizing her research on the murals, and she undertook the decoration of the Alumnae House at Vassar.

Just when Violet Oakley might have relaxed, she packed her bags and took off for Geneva, Switzerland, to record the beginning of the League of Nations in 1927. She exhibited the work from this trip in prominent locations along the mid-Atlantic coast, including the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts.

Violet Oakley continued to work until the day of her death, February 25, 1961. She received many awards throughout the 1930s and ’40s for her work. In 1948 Drexel Institute awarded her an honorary Doctorate of Laws Degree.

By Catherine C. Stryker


Taken from Elzea, Rowland and Elizabeth H. Hawkes, eds. A Small School of Art: The Students of Howard Pyle. Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, 1980.

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The Violet Oakley Papers of the Delaware Art Museum consist of several series of original correspondence regarding “The Holy Experiment,” exhibition catalogs and illustrations from books and magazines. The latter were collected by the Library.

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Series I. Biographical
Series II. Correspondence
Series III. Photographs
Series IV. Printed Matter
Series V. Illustrations
Series VI. Miscellaneous
Series VII. Magazine Illustrations



Series I. Biographical

Folder 1 – Biography

Series II. Correspondence

Folder 2 – Between Edith Emerson (Asst. to Oakley) and Gertrude Brincklé (Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts) regarding information on Pyle students, 1920 (2 letters); Oakley to Joseph Bancroft regarding publication of portfolio “The Holy Experiment”, 1922-1923 (4 letters); Oakley to Bertha Bates Cole, April 29, 1931; Oakley to Joseph Bancroft regarding publication of portfolio “Law Triumphant,” 1931-1933

Folder 3 – Christmas Cards – “Christ at Geneva,” by Violet Oakley (2 copies); 1938; 1946-1947; 1960; Christmas greetings to Bertha and Daniel Bates from Violet Oakley and Edith Emerson, no date

Folder 4 – Portfolios – Regarding First Subscribers to “The Holy Experiment,” 1921-1922

Series III. Photographs

Folder 5 – 2 photographs: Oakley at easel (from Phila. Museum of Art Bulletin, June 1979); “June” Cover for Everybody’s Magazine, June 1902. Lent by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Series IV. Printed Matter

Folder 6 – Exhibition of Work by Violet Oakley, Galerie Moos, Geneva, September 15th-October 2nd, 1928; Exhibition of Work by Violet Oakley, N.A. Including “The Holy Experiment,” “The Opening of the Book of the Law,” & “The Geneva Drawings,” Grand Central Art Galleries, New York, February 4th to February 15th, 1930; Exhibition of Work by Violet Oakley, N.A. Including “The Holy Experiment,” “The Opening of the Book of the Law,” & “The Geneva Drawings,” The Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, Wilmington, Delaware, October 18th to October 28th, 1930 (4 copies)

Folder 7 – Violet Oakley, Bulletin: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Volume 75, Number 325, June 1979 (4 copies)

Folder 8 – Drexel’s Great School of American Illustration: Violet Oakley and Her Contemporaries, Drexel University Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 15, 1984-May 31, 1985 (3 copies)

Folder 9 – The Studios at Cogslea, Delaware Art Museum, February 20-March 28, 1976

Folder 10 – Publications from the State of Pennsylvania, Chamber paintings (2)

Folder 11 – Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation

Folder 12 – Newspaper articles

Series V. Illustrations

Folder 13 – Illustrations for the windows of the Robert Collier house

Folder 14 – Illustrations – Source unknown

Folder 15 – Book illustrations

Series VI. Miscellaneous

Folder 16 – Miscellaneous and photograph

Folder 17 – Record of work

Folder 18 – Show/Loan papers/Lists

Folder 19 – “Odes” by Harrison S. Morris, 1938


Series VII. Magazine Illustrations

American Magazine of Art – 1922
Architectural League Yearbook – 1914, 1916
The Book of the Pageant –
Century – 1902-1908
Colliers – 1898-1908
Christian Science Monitor – 1934
Everybody’s – 1901-1902
Harper’s – 1898
International Studio – 1926
Ladies Home Journal – 1897-1898
McClure’s – 1898
Mentor – 1926
Penna. Academy of Fine Arts – 1909
Public Ledger – 1913
St. Nicholas – 1902
Survey Graphic – 1935
Three Arts Club Journal, Philadelphia – 1916



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