Spirit & Substance: 100 Years of Violet Oakley, Capitol Muralist

Spirit & Substance: 100 Years of Violet Oakley, Capitol Muralist

I burned to build a great monument. The result is now before you.

Unity is its theme — the unity of all life — and this oneness of the law of life is love.

Violet Oakley, in the Senate

January 20, 2019 marks the one hundredth anniversary of Violet Oakley finishing her Senate Chamber murals. Unity and The Creation and Preservation of the Union were completed and dedicated first, on February 12, 1917. Two years later, The Little Sanctuary in the Wilderness and The Slave Ship Ransomed were completed and dedicated, on January 20, 1919.

Seven years earlier, in 1912, Pennsylvania's Superintendent of Public Grounds and Buildings asked Violet Oakley, a renowned mural and stained-glass artist from Philadelphia, to design murals for Pennsylvania's new Senate Chamber. When they were completed, she hoped they would serve as a "testament to the world." (Sacred Challenge, 63) At the one-hundredth anniversary of her Senate work, it is appropriate to reflect on the spirit and substance of Violet Oakley's Senate murals.

This exhibition is both a celebration of Violet Oakley's art and a reminder of the legacy she left the Commonwealth. The Senate Library, invites Members, staff and visitors to experience anew the mastery of material and depth of thought inspiring Violet Oakley to create such lasting monuments to democracy in the Commonwealth and world. The Library of the Senate presents this exhibition in collaboration with The Capitol Preservation Committee, Historical Society of Dauphin County, State Library as well as Senate Republican and Democratic Graphics.

"Remarks in the Senate Chamber on the 100th Anniversary of Violet Oakley's Senate Murals"

Thanks to Senate Majority Whip and CPC Chairman John Gordner, Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa and Senator Andrew Dinniman for speaking on the occasion.


Senate Resolution No. 22
"Recognizing the 100th Anniversary of the Violet Oakly Murals."

Senate Resolution No. 22 on display in the PA Senate library

  • Violet Oakley. Unity, Creation and Preservation of the Union, The Legend of the Latchstring and The Slave Ship Ransomed. Senate Chamber murals. Capitol Preservation Committee.
  • Violet Oakley. The Holy Experiment: Our Heritage from William Penn 1644-1944. Book. Cogslea Studio Publications, Philadelphia: 1950. Private Collection.
  • Violet Oakley to Senate Librarian Herman P. Miller on the "Key to the Murals" Letter. 4 April 1917. Historical Society of Dauphin County.
  • Violet Oakley. "Key to the Murals" Historical Society of Dauphin County.
  • Violet Oakley. Glass Negative Photograph. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-06489 (digital file from original negative). http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014686481/


The viewer will learn the following

  • Violet Oakley created the Senate Chamber murals through a very thoughtful and detailed process, using professional techniques and background research to inspire and inform her work.
  • Violet Oakley was the first female artist in the United States to receive such a large commission for a public work. (CPC)
  • Some of the ideals reflected in Violet Oakley's Senate Chamber murals are peace, freedom, international cooperation, religious tolerance and social equality.
  • Each ideal in Oakley's murals exists as an allegory, or a symbolic, visual representation of the ideal.
  • Violet Oakley worked very hard throughout her life to safeguard the meaning behind the Senate murals.
  • The Senate Chamber murals are as relevant today as they were one hundred years ago, because viewers can still connect with and be inspired by the "sacred challenge" (CPC) undertaken by Violet Oakley.

Pennsylvania Academic Standards (met in whole or in part by this exhibition)

Note: *The text for this exhibition is written (with the occasional exception of field-specific language) for the sixth-eighth grade band.

Exhibition Team Megan Martin; Evelyn Andrews; Jess Rodic; Sarah Greenwald; Donna Wheeler; George Soule.

Other Organization and Individuals: David Craig, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee; Jason Wilson, Historian, Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee; Christine Turner, Executive Director, Historical Society of Dauphin County; Ken Frew, Librarian and Acting Curator/Archivist, Historical Society of Dauphin County; Iren Snavely, State Library; Jonathan Stayer, Supervisor of Reference Services, PA State Archives; Helen Mabus, Graphics Illustrator, Democratic Caucus Operations; Madison Wolfe, Photographer, Republican Communications; Jason Tully, Legislative Applications Supervisor, LDPC and David Burton, Computer Programmer, LDPC.

  • Capitol Preservation Committee For more information on Violet Oakley and Pennsylvania's Capitol Building
  • Capitol Preservation Committee. A Sacred Challenge: Violet Oakley and the Pennsylvania Capitol Murals. Harrisburg: The Capitol Preservation Committee, 2002.
  • Likos-Ricci, Patricia. "Violet Oakley: American Renaissance Woman" The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Vol 26, No. 2. Historical Society of Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
  • Van Hook, Bailey. Violet Oakley: An Artist's Life. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2016.
  • Violet Oakley Papers. 1841-1981. Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
  • PA State Archives
  • PA House Archives See also the Archives' Opening Day Exhibit Case. On Display in the Main Capitol Rotunda, January 2019.
  • PA State Library