HARRISBURG (November 21, 2019) – A new exhibition at the State Museum of Pennsylvania is sparking renewed interest in the life and work of renowned artist Violet Oakley, state Senator Andy Dinniman said.
The exhibit, “Picturing a More Perfect Union: Violet Oakley’s Mural Studies for the Pennsylvania Senate Chamber, 1911–1919” opens to the public Friday and features more than 50 of Oakley’s original studies for the Senate Chamber murals from The State Museum’s collections.
Oakley, the first female artist to receive a government mural commission in the nation, spent nearly a quarter of a century – from 1902 to 1927 – painting 43 murals for the Pennsylvania State Capitol. The exhibit focuses on Oakley’s journey to create her murals, which continue to amaze and inspire visitors and lawmakers today.
Dinniman, who serves on the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee, recounted a story told to him by the late Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll.
“Apparently, they refused to let Oakley, or any women, into the Senate Chamber when she first started painting. So, she dressed in overalls, entered the room after business hours, and painted anyway,” Dinniman said. “Oakley is a standout figure in our history for both her incomparable talent and her conviction and resolve in standing for her beliefs. She felt strongly that the paintings should depict Pennsylvania’s history of religious tolerance and the ideals of social freedom and justice and she made her vision a reality through hard work and persistence.”
Of the 43 murals that resulted from her work, the nine panels for the Senate Chamber, produced between 1911 and 1919, are the most impressive in scale and scope.
Oakley’s Senate Chamber murals highlight people and events from Pennsylvania and American history, but the panels also depict topics rarely seen in American public art of that era. African Americans appear in four of the nine murals. Women also appear with unusual frequency, either as allegorical or historical figures. Quaker social ideals, which Oakley embraced, infused the murals throughout.
Created during a decade of national and international conflict and landmark social change – including the enfranchisement of American woman with the passage of the 19th Amendment – Oakley’s murals today can be seen as a bold political statement in pictorial form.
“I encourage residents to visit the Capitol Building to see Oakley’s work in person. And while you are there, check out the new exhibit across the street at the state museum to learn more about her talents and remarkable backstory,” Dinniman said. “Oakley’s example, her work, and her legacy tie directly with the Quaker values of our region and the pioneers who fought for equality and continue to do so today.”
“Picturing a More Perfect Union” takes visitors through Oakley’s process, using her studies to illustrate the many layers that went into creating each mural. That layering idea is repeated in both the layout and graphic design of the exhibit, starting first at completed mural and then taking viewers back through the intricate steps Oakley carried out to achieve each figure that makes up a part of the whole.
“Picturing a More Perfect Union” is curated by State Museum Senior Curator of History Dr. Curtis Miner and Fine Arts Curator Amy Hammond. Special advisor to the exhibition is Dr. Patricia Likos Ricci, an art historian and professor at Elizabethtown College. Ricci is the preeminent Oakley scholar and has studied the artist for more than four decades.
The public is invited to the exhibit opening on Friday, November 22, from 3 to 7 PM during the museum’s annual Holiday Marketplace. Admission to the museum will be free during this time.
The exhibit runs through Sunday, April 26, 2020.