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In 1902, legislators in Harris burg were planning a grand new capitol building. Architect John Huston declared that he wanted it to be a "palace of art", and chose some of the finest Pennsylvania artists to decorate the interior. For the murals Huston chose artists Edwin Austin Abbey and Violet Oakley, the first American woman ever to receive a public mural commission.
Nancy Mendes is an art historian and an artist as well. She wrote her master's thesis on Oakley and Abbey and the history of the Pennsylvania State Capitol.
"Women weren't thought of for any kind of work like this," Mendes says. "Even Edwin Austin Abbey wrote about how grueling it was to do murals, and he just knew a woman wasn't going to be capable of doing it."
But architect John Huston wanted to offer the murals in the Governor's Reception room to Oakley as he said, "to serve as encouragement to the women in Pennsylvania."
Still, as Mendes points out, he had earlier offered Edwin Austin Abbey $70,000 to do the murals for the Governor's reception room. He offered Violet Oakley only $20,000.
Violet Oakley took a $5000 advance on the work and went to England. She wanted to study both the mural painting and the life of William Penn.
Mendes says that exploring William Penn's life as a Quaker created in Oakley something akin to a religious conversion. "She became enamored of the cause of religious freedom," says Mendes, "and she became an evangelist for that."
Oakley's murals depicting the life of William Penn and the religious intolerance that led him to America were the first to be unveiled at the new capitol. They were acclaimed for their quality - but the subject matter sparked a controversy. Some Catholics were offended and called for their removal.
"She really stood up for herself, "Medes says. "She told the story as she saw it -the unvarnished truth - and it wasn't popular. But the governor backed her up and said, we're keeping them, they're fine."
Artist Edwin Austin Abbey died before he completed all the murals he was commissioned to do at the Capitol. Violet Oakley was then asked also to do the murals in both the Senate and the Supreme Court rooms.
In the Senate room, many different panels represent different aspects of Pennsylvania life and history. Dominating them all is the huge Unity figure - a Madonna-like robed woman with arms outstretched, trying to unify all the different factions.
Mendes points out that Violet Oakley was groundbreaking in many ways, "She was the first woman to get a big commission like the murals in the state capitol. When she did study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, she studied with Celia Bow, who was their first female teacher ever. And later in her life when she was finished with the Harrisburg murals she went back to the Pennsylvania academy and she taught mural painting. So she was the second woman to teach at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine arts in history. So she's very significant."
Her free lecture will be accompanied by a slide show presentation. It takes place Monday, March 21 at 6 pm at the Historic Harrisburg Association at 1230 North Third Street in Harrisburg.
In 2004, WITF produced an hour-long documentary about the building of the State Capitol, including Violet Oakley's contribution. Titled "A Palace of Art", it can be viewed below.
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