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Violet Oakley Collection

Identifier: OAK

Scope and Contents

The seven scrapbooks in the first series primarily contain newspaper and magazine clippings, as well as pamphlets, programs, exhibition checklists, ephemera and correspondence, and chronicle Oakley's career from 1899 to 1962, one year after her death.

The second series consists of four publications written, designed and illustrated by Oakley that were printed in limited editions. "The Holy Experiment, our heritage from William Penn..." pertains to the dramatic mural project Oakley executed for the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The oversized plates illustrating the 1922 portfolio edition are housed separately from the original, leather cover and calligraphic text. There is also an octavo-sized version of "The Holy Experiment," that was published in 1950, with black and white illustrations. Oakley published "Law Triumphant" in 1932 to commemorate the Disarmament Conference that began in Geneva that year. Its four-color plates are also housed separately from the original oversized volume. The 1949 pamphlet, "Great Women of the Bible..." pertains to the ten murals Oakley, who was more than 70 years old at the time, created for the Pastoral Aid Society, which was the women's organization to the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, Pennsylvania. The pamphlet is not illustrated.

The "Photographs" series consists primarily of black and white photographs. Most of these feature a pet cat, which from the notations on the verso of a few of the images was "Cogs," taken in 1909. The women who are included in a couple of these photographs appear to be Oakley and Edith Emerson. The material identified as "Reference" probably was assembled by museum staff or scholars in 1979 in preparation for the Oakley exhibition held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. These include mounted copy prints, most of which show the artist working in her studio on various mural projects and details of the artwork, a multi-page list identifying all the images in five photograph albums belonging to Edith Emerson, and two four-color photographs of Oakley's murals on the north and south walls of the Senate Chamber in the Pennsylvania State Capitol. The “Drawings” series consists of two sheets of pencil sketches of a cat in various poses.

The “Lantern Slides” series reproduces works of art and are primarily organized by country of origin, then by artist and/or media. It appears that Violet Oakley used the slides to illustrate presentations in her studio, in the Philadelphia area, and in other cities to supplement her income, especially during the Depression. Edith Emerson likely used the slides to teach at the Agnes Irwin school, where she was employed from 1916-1927, and other schools where she taught. Also of note are lantern and 35 mm Kodachrome slides from Lake George, which contain original photographs of Oakley, Emerson, friends and students at Oakley's property at Lake George where they spent vacations and developed a summer art school program. Other materials of interest include slides associated with Emerson's trip to India in 1936-1937 to prepare illustrations for The Pageant of India's History (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1949), written by her sister, Gertrude Emerson Sen.

The collection also contains documentation related to the lantern slides, additional negatives, commercially produced art prints, and various ephemera related to Oakley.


  • 1899-1979, undated


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Violet Oakley Collection is the physical property of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives. The Museum holds literary rights only for material created by Museum personnel or given to the Museum with such rights specifically assigned. For all other material, literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. Researchers are responsible for obtaining permission from rights holders for publication and other purposes where stated.

Biographical / Historical

As the first woman artist to receive a major public art commission in America, Violet Oakley combined her artistic talents with her commitment to pacifism and feminism. Considered an important American Renaissance artist, Oakley is best known for her murals and stained glass projects. Oakley was born June 10, 1874 and raised in Bergen Heights, NJ. She began her art studies by the age of 18 and attended the Art Students League, the Academie Montparnasse in Paris, Charles Lasar’s summer school in Rye, England and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. . She also studied with Howard Pyle at Drexel Institute, which awarded her an honorary Doctorate of Laws Degree in 1948. Oakley began her career as a magazine and book illustrator. Her most significant project, which took 25 years to complete, was for the State Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. For that commission, Oakley painted 43 murals, decorating the Governors Grand Reception Room, the Senate Chamber and the Supreme Court Room. Oakley maintained a studio in Philadelphia's center city for about a 6 years before moving to the Red Rose estate in Villanova, Pennsylvania with her mother, the illustrators Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green, Green’s parents, and a mutual friend, Henrietta Cozens, in 1902. Pyle nicknamed them the “Red Rose girls.” In 1906, the group relocated to the West Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia calling their home and studio “Cogslea.” Oakley’s student at the Pennsylvania Academy, Edith Emerson, became her apprentice and moved into Cogslea in 1918. She lived there with Oakley until the artist’s death on February 25, 1961. The following year, Emerson founded the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation at Cogslea.


15.5 linear feet

Language of Materials



The Violet Oakley Collection documents the range Oakley's artistic talents, particularly as a muralist, with her commitment to pacifism and feminism.

Custodial History

The initial group of materials was transferred from the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs in Summer 2006. The later accrual was transferred from the same department in Spring 2017. Both accessions were originally held by the Violet Oakley Foundation and transferred to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the late 1970s. They were processed together as one collection to reunite the two parts in the Library and Archives department.

Processing Information

The first four series were arranged and described by Bertha Adams and funded by a grant from The Institute of Museum and Library Services. The latter five series were an accrual and processed by Susan Anderson Laquer with funding provided by the McLean Trust in 2017. Additional processing of lantern slides was completed in 2019 by Sophie Basalone.


Guide to the Violet Oakley Collection
Finding aid prepared by Bertha Adams in 2007. An accrual processed was by Susan Anderson Laquer and Sophie Basalone in 2017 and 2019.
2007, 2017, 2019
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note
Funding provided by a grant from The Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2007. Additional funding provided by the McLean Trust in 2017 for accrual processing.

Repository Details

Part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives Repository

Philadelphia Museum of Art
PO Box 7646
Philadelphia PA 19101-7646 United States