Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

100 Years of Unity: Violet Oakley retrospective celebrates the famous muralist.

When visiting Harrisburg, visitors often will check out the state Capitol building, the most popular tourist site in the city.

This majestic building has been a fixture of the city’s skyline for more than a century. On Saturday mornings, people often are found taking selfies, with the grand dome in the background.

Some will come in for group and self-guided tours, walking through the Rotunda, Senate Chamber, Supreme Courtroom and the House Chamber. With the start of a new exhibit series, the Senate Library has recently made its way into the loop of stops.

“I first got inspired from a family trip to D.C.,” said Megan Martin, the secretary and parliamentarian of the PA Senate. “[The Senate Library] is really a smaller scale of the Library of Congress. I wanted to tell the story of the library in a visual way and mimic a museum, swapping out [exhibits].”

Martin, the first woman in her position, pitched the idea of “The Legacy Project” in November 2017, before presenting the opening exhibit last year. She believes showcasing people who have contributed to the library is important as it enhances the visitor’s experience.

“We’re hoping the exhibit will be appealing and accessible to international visitors,” said Sarah Greenwald, curator and project manager. “We want to share the common history of the lesser known and humanize and highlight the forgotten.”

The premier exhibit, “Inspired. Uncovered. Honored. The Untold Institutional History of the Pennsylvania Senate,” focused largely on the people who ensured preservation of the valuable legislative record, retaining the Senate’s inaugural session and early proceedings.

The current exhibit, “Spirit & Substance: 100 Years of Violet Oakley, Capitol Muralist,” focuses on the painter responsible for some of the most iconic artwork in the statehouse. The exhibit displays a timeline of events, facts about the artist, an explanation of the six themes outlined in the murals, textual artifacts and an overview of Oakley’s vision.

“[Oakley’s] work is 100 years old, and it’s as beautiful, relevant and inspirational as ever,” said Evelyn Andrews, the PA Senate librarian. “The message hasn’t faded in time.”

In 1906, the current Capitol building completed construction, and Oakley went to work producing her signature murals, which were based on ideals from history and literature in Renaissance revival styles.

In January 1919, she finished her Senate chamber murals, a milestone that the exhibit commemorates. So, it’s important to visit both the exhibit and those famous murals.

In the Senate chamber, images from 19th-century Pennsylvania abound, as do themes of equality, freedom, justice and peace. The center mural, “International Unity and Understanding,” displays swords beaten into ploughshares, with Italian poet Dante offering “fruits of culture” to the crowds. At center, a giant figure, with open arms, wears a blue gown that transforms into the waters of life.

The mural echoed on a personal level for Oakley, as she fought for unity and equality in her own life. As the first American woman to receive a public mural commission, she didn’t let the societal norms of her day prevent her from doing what she loved.

Within the Capitol, the Supreme Courtroom and the Governors Grand Reception Room feature more of Oakley’s 43 murals. It’s important to remember that, at the time, women didn’t even have the right to vote, as the 19th amendment wasn’t ratified until 1920.

“Her values are still relevant today,” Greenwald said. “[Oakley] empowers women and enables women to continue to lead using their talents.”

Looking ahead, the Senate Library plans to commemorate Memorial Day with a military display, “We Remember: Service to the State and Nation,” continuing with a seasonal rotation of exhibits throughout the year.

“The project has turned out better than what I thought when I first presented the idea,” Martin said. “It’s been really exciting to tell the stories for generations to come, to put out something that’s educational and fascinating on the message of Oakley.”


For more information on the PA Senate Library and featured exhibits, visit or download the PA Capitol’s new mobile app at

Continue Reading