In 1902 Violet Oakley was the first woman artist to receive a large commission for adorning a capitol building in the United States. Though it was not known at the time, Oakley would become the principal artist for the largest amount of murals in the Pennsylvania Capitol. Through the assistance of a mutual friend of hers and Joseph Huston's, architect John Irwin Bright, she was recommended as an artist for the building. Huston offered Oakley the commission to paint murals for the Governor's Reception Room because he felt it would "add interest to the building and act as an encouragement of women of the state."
Oakley was actually born in Jersey City, New Jersey, though she lived the majority of her life in Philadelphia. She studied at the Art Students' League in New York and later at Drexel with famous illustrator Howard Pyle. Oakley became part one of a triumvirate of three noted female illustrators of their time ï¿½ Oakley, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Jessie Wilcox Smith. From 1902 until 1906 these three illustrators lived together at the Red Rose Inn in Villanova, Pennsylvania, which was where Violet started her murals for the Governor's Reception Room, a frieze that she titled The Founding of the State of Liberty Spiritual.
Traveling to England, Oakley immediately set out to conduct research for her murals. Though both Governor Pennypacker and Huston gave her recommendations on topics for the room, Oakley persisted in depicting the story of William Penn, as the founder of the colony. Violet was very strong in her conviction about wanting to trace Pennsylvania's history of religious tolerance and the ideals of social freedom and justice inherited from Penn for the reception room murals. Eventually, both Huston and Governor Stone acquiesced to her designs after they reviewed her preliminary studies that were presented before the Capitol Building Commission.
When the frieze was complete in 1906, Oakley's thirteen murals for the reception room were some of the first to be installed in the Capitol. Though they were sent to Harrisburg prior to the October 4 dedication, they were not yet in place due to finishing touches in the reception room. The thirteen murals were unveiled on November 27, 1906 before a large crowd.
With her work complete, Oakley found other commissions to occupy her time, but with the passing of Edwin Austin Abbey in 1911, Samuel B. Rambo, Superintendent of Public Grounds and Buildings, offered Oakley the opportunity to create murals for the Capitol's unfinished Senate and Supreme Court Chambers. She began her new contract in 1912 working on both commissions concurrently, although the Senate took precedence. After more research and work, the Senate murals on the front wall, Unity and The Creation and Preservation of the Union, were dedicated on February 12, 1917. The two Quaker legends at the back of the Chamber were dedicated on January 20, 1919.
After the completion of the Senate murals, Violet devoted her attention to the Supreme Court Chamber, and for these paintings she chose to illustrate what she saw as the evolution of law, from its earliest beginnings to the present. These murals are Violet's most allegorical and they also best illustrate her ideological journey as a painter committed to the ideals of world peace. She chose to represent law as movement up a musical scale, beginning with the painting Divine Law, which she said was both the Alpha and the Omega. The frieze continues around the room proceeding from the paintings The Law of Nature and International Law, before returning to the Keynote. Violet fervently believed that her vision of the evolution of law, as depicted in the Supreme Court Chamber, would lead to eventual world peace. The murals in the court chamber were installed and dedicated on May 23, 1927. Overall, Violet Oakley is the only artist to work over a quarter century decorating the building, creating forty-three murals for the Capitol.