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The Holy Experiment: Violet Oakley Mural Studies

December 8, 2007 - March 30, 2008


A significant piece of Pennsylvania's history comes to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown this winter.  The Holy Experiment: Violet Oakley Mural Studies, featuring thirteen original oil on canvas studies for murals in the Governor's Reception Room of the Pennsylvania Capitol Building in Harrisburg,is on view from December 8, 2007 through March 30, 2008 in the Museum's Pfundt Gallery. Each mural, according to Oakley, depicts events that influenced Quaker ideology, William Penn's life and his search for freedom, peace and acceptance.  This exhibition is augmented by a bust and photographs of the artist and a prized pair of her earrings. 

"When Oakley successfully carried out the commission of the thirteen murals, the widespread publicity and immensely favorable reaction to her stunning work launched her career," says Erika Jaeger-Smith, Associate Curator of Exhibitions at the Museum.

"In choosing Violet Oakley to paint the works that would be installed in the 'Palace of Art,' as Pennsylvania's Capitol building was called, the architect took a risk for his times.  At the beginning of the last century, women artists were still denied many exhibition opportunities, along with their consequent honors and awards."

In 1902, Oakley was commissioned to paint the murals for the Governor's Reception Room, which at that time was the largest commission given to a woman artist in the country.  After she was invited to paint these murals, Oakley traveled to Italy in an effort to see firsthand the colors and effects of Italian Master Artists.  She also studied in England to research William Penn's life and influences. 

Oakley painted some murals with a two- or three-panel design, while others depict one compelling scene, like the Study for Mural Thirteen, Penn's first sight of his Promised Land, 1682.  In this last panel of the series, William Penn is in the front of a boat with the sails raised as he stares out.  All of the mural studies were created with a historical approach in mind, and Oakley added illuminated text to each panel to further evoke the feeling of the Italian Renaissance period. 

In the 1930s, these original studies were donated by Oakley to the Initiatives of Change, an organization now based in Caux, Switzerland, dedicated to human rights and social justice, issues Oakley supported throughout her life.  Eleven studies were acquired by the Capitol Preservation Committee in 2004, while the remaining two were drawn from the holdings of the Pennsylvania State Senate Chamber. 

Oakley studied at the Art Student's League in Philadelphia.  She was an illustration student of Howard Pyle's at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia and designed covers for such publications as Colliers Illustrated Weekly, Century Magazineand Woman's Home Companion. Oakley was also part of The Philadelphia Ten, a group of women artists who worked together and produced their own exhibits in the first part of the 20th century. 

Oakley described her life story as the "pilgrimage of a painter seeking peace."  She was dedicated to working toward freedom and peace, much like Penn.  Oakley is a pivotal part of Pennsylvania and Women's art history and was recognized and awarded many times throughout her career.  She painted 43 murals in total for the Pennsylvania Capitol and was the first woman recipient of the Gold Medal of Honor from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1905 for her work in the Governor's Reception Room.  In 1948 she also received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws from the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia. 

A Sacred Challenge: Violet Oakley and the Pennsylvania Capitol Murals, published by the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee, contain over 200 photographs and gives insight into Violet Oakley's entire body of work.  This book is available in the Museum shops.

Made possible by the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, The Holy Experiment is sponsored by Mary Lou and Andrew Abruzzese of The Pineville Tavern.


(above: Violet Oakley (1874-1961), Culmination of Intolerance and Persecution in the Civil War: Development of the Puritan Idea, 1902-1906, Oil on canvas, H. 17.75 x W. 31 inches, Collection of the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee)


(above: Violet Oakley (1874-1961, Penn's First Sight of the Shores of Pennsylvania as He Ascends the River ­ "From Whence the Air Smelt as Sweet as a New-Blown Garden," 1902-1906, Oil on canvas, Collection of the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee)


Editor's note: readers may also enjoy:

from TFAO and Resource Library:

from the Web:

with permission of Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ruthann Hubbert Kemper and Brandon R. Stuck of the PA Capitol Preservation Committee, and Dr. Jacqueline M. Atkins and Sarah Cooke of the Allentown Art Museum for their help concerning granting of the above permission.

rev. 12/5/09

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