A continuation of our Women in Illustration series (see previous blog post here), this post will focus on a contemporary of Elenore Abbott, artist Violet Oakley (1874-1961). The two women operated in many of the same artistic communities during their lifetimes, but each left unique and inspiring legacies. Oakley was born into a family of creatives, and herself began studying at the Art Students League of New York in 1892. She spent a year in Europe before returning to the US, where she briefly attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, then studied with master illustrator Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute.
Early in her career, Oakley became a successful illustrator for publications including The Century Magazine, Collier’s Weekly, St. Nicholas Magazine, and Woman’s Home Companion. In 1900, Oakley was the first American woman to receive a public mural commission, for All Angels Church in New York City. Oakley became a prominent mural painter, breaking ground in the field of mural decoration and creating a prolific number of lasting pieces in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Her most significant series consists of 43 murals in the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building, in her signature Renaissance-revival style.
Oakley’s smaller-scale works are also incredibly masterful and give us a sense of her figurative skill and her attention to light and shadow. The “United Nations Series” (1946) is a fantastic example of Oakley’s artistic sense: their unfinished composition is a quality reminiscent of works by Dutch artist Anthony van Dyck, drawing the focus to the certain features of each subject.
The rich tones of Oakley’s color palette and her use of soft brush strokes lend her oil paintings a certain lusciousness that allows them to stand apart from her murals and illustrations. Connected through figurative subject and theme, the style of Oakley’s work changes depending on her medium, making apparent her versatility and artistic ability.
Between 1899 and 1901, Oakley and fellow artists Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Willcox Smith (also former students of Pyle) lived together in the Red Rose Inn in Villanova, Pennsylvania, where they earned the nickname “the Red Rose Girls.” The women later lived together with another artist friend, Henrietta Cozens, exemplifying the “New Woman” persona in their own lives, living and working as independent artists and also supporting one another in an enriching creative partnership. Along with Elenore Abbott, these women were members of the Plastic Club, a women’s group dedicated to creating “art for art’s sake.” Neither Oakley nor Willcox Smith were ever married, but maintained flourishing careers and lifelong friendship; their non-heteronormative life trajectories are an inspiring example of the artistic New Woman of the early 20th century.