If you’ve ever toured the PA Capitol, you probably agree that Violet Oakley’s spectacular murals are a highlight.
You now can learn even more about the painter and her famous works with a new exhibit at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, one that places her murals into personal and historical context.
“One of the most fascinating things about the studies is watching her think through the narrative of these murals and seeing how she changes her mind along the way,” said Fine Arts Curator Amy Hammond.
As the first American woman to receive a government mural commission, Oakley spent much of the early 20th century painting 43 murals throughout the Capitol. The new exhibit focuses on the nine murals in the Capitol’s Senate Chambers, blending in Oakley’s significant historical legacy and profound artistic ability.
Dr. Curtis Miner, exhibit co-curator, said that Oakley embodied the “New Woman” ideal of the early 20th century, in that she was skillfully entering professional spaces that had historically been reserved for men.
“When she was asked to take on the project after the former artist had passed, she said, ‘Yes, but I will be getting the same pay, correct?’” said Miner. “She did not see gender as a barrier and asserted her opinions freely.”
In 1982, the museum acquired 400 pieces when the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation dissolved. The Senate Chamber mural studies were chosen not only for their scope and scale, but for their timing. Oakley created these murals during both World War I and the apex of the women’s suffrage movement.
In general, civic murals tend to represent milestones and broad themes, such as battles won and the forward march of progress, Miner said.
“She followed this well-established tradition but with her own twist,” he said. “She used these murals to tell her version of Pennsylvania and U.S. history.”
Miner and Hammond pointed out many examples of this throughout the exhibit. Oakley, for instance, began her murals with Quaker ideals of tolerance in panels depicting the freeing of slaves and the early interactions with Native Americans. She also made women and African Americans visual focal points in scenes such as the Constitutional Convention and the Gettysburg Address.
“With these studies, we have been able to bring fragments of her work together in a meaningful way,” Miner said.
The exhibit’s title, “Picturing a More Perfect Union,” comes together in the final portion, which focuses on the largest of these murals, “Unity.”
In this mural, the armies of the earth, depicted in modern, World War I attire, and the people of the earth lead up to the figure of Unity, whose outstretched arms seek to bring them all together. This portion of the exhibit is accompanied by a video with recordings of Oakley’s own voice and drawings of the Unity figure in various positions.
Both Hammond and Miner said this was Oakley’s radical message from Pennsylvania to the world—a kind of Utopian vision of peace and international human dignity.
Hammond compared the wide platform that Oakley had at such a young age to modern social media influencers, in that she used this platform to share her ideals of peace and tolerance, which still can be applied to current events today.
“She wanted her work to stand the test of time,” Miner said. “And it does.”
“Picturing a More Perfect Union: Violet Oakley’s Mural Studies for the Pennsylvania Senate Chamber, 1911–1919” runs through April 26 at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, 300 North St., Harrisburg. For more information about the exhibit, visit www.statemuseumpa.org.
In conjunction with the exhibit, Jason Wilson, historian for the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee, will conduct tours on the history and preservation of Violet Oakley’s Senate Chamber murals. These tours will take place in the state Capitol on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2 to 3 p.m., and Friday, Feb. 21, 12:15 to 12:45 p.m.