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Women's Art: Women's Vision

Along with Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Wilcox Smith, Violet Oakley was a member of the celebrated artistic triumvirate known as "The Red Rose Girls," named after a picturesque inn in Villanova where they lived and worked together. The group was phenomenally successful during what has been termed the "golden age of illustration in America," which lasted from the 1880s until shortly after World War I. Oakley was best known for her mural painting and as a designer of stained glass.

Panel of “The Arts” Violet Oakley

When she was 22 years old, her family moved from New Jersey 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.

In 1902, Joseph Huston, the Harrisburg, Pa. capitol architect, asked Oakley to paint murals for the Governor's Reception Room. 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. 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 its Supreme Court.

The 2008 Women’s History Month Theme, “Women’s Art: Women’s Vision,” recognizes such women as Oakley, one of 12 women being honored by the National Women’s History Project. Joining here are such artists as illustrator Rose Cecil O’Neill, painter Harmony Hammond and quilter Faith Ringgold.

The Library presents a topic page in honor of its celebration of Women’s History Month. Featured are spotlights on photographer Carol Highsmith and the Library’s exhibition on the MacDowell Artists Colony, along with resources for teachers and much more.

As part of its online exhibitions, the Library offers up presentations on both Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Wilcox Smith.

A recurrent theme in women’s history, and much of what is commemorated during the monthly celebration, is their epic struggle for equality and rights. The Library’s Prints and Photographs Division holds a variety of images related to the movement. The American Memory collections include a section devoted to women’s history, including selections from the National American Women Suffrage Association Collection and photographs from the National Woman’s Party.

A. Panel of “The Arts” by Kenyon Cox. Second Floor, Southwest Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress. 2007. Carol M. Highsmith Archive. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-DIG-highsm-02238 (original digital file); Call No.: LOT 13860 [item] (ONLINE) [P&P]

B. Violet Oakley. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-DIG-ggbain-06489 (digital file from original neg.); Call No.: LC-B2- 1250-3[P&P]