Violet Oakley, the Holy Experiment and the Common Wealth of the United States

To the memory of Selby and Dorothy Clewer, English Quakers, guardians of my British childhood, who lived the Quaker rule that there is of God in every human being.



A Grand Vision:  Violet Oakley (1874-1961, American) and the American Renaissance 

The Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia until January 29, 2018


The idea of American exceptionalism is understood to have many sources, the earliest being that of Alexis de Tocqueville ( 1805-1859) who described the United States as ‘exceptional’. 

The idea is still extant despite the apparent decline of the status in the world of the United States.  It is the subject of continuously heated debate. 

At base the United States is thought to be exceptional – that is, different from and superior to any country, culture or empire before it – because of its belief in liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy and laissez-faire economics. 

To this is added the idea that the United States has seen as a duty the defense and spread of these ideals across the world. 



 William Penn atop Philadelphia’s City Hall, completed 1901.  All its statuary was created by Alexander Milne Calder, 1846-1923.




I have never been sure about this definition of exceptionalism. 

I don’t know why the United States should be considered any more exceptional than the British and French civilizations with their (former) empires.

Britain may not be a republic and France may have and have had its difficulties with laissez-faire economics.




Seal of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Brandywine River Museum and Conservancy, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania



And granted that individualism, which is a part of American cultural myth, is not part of any European equivalent. But it remains a myth and not something that the vast majority can translate into action given the constraints of that same laissez-faire economics.

And then there is also this: the primacy of the individual is part of the entire democratic tradition, no matter where it is, and everyone is a signatory of the Declaration of Human Rights (1948) whose sources are both European and American.



One of 400 tiles made by Henry Mercer (1856-1930, American) for the floor of the rotunda of the State House, Harrisburg.  They trace the history and activities of the people of the state.


There is, though, certainly a development in the history of the United States which does seem to me to have made her exceptional.


And that is this:  the Quaker principle and plan of action known as the Holy Experiment**  with which William Penn established the city of Philadelphia (1682) and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1682-84).




Seal of the City of Philadelphia in a park in the south of the city.

The law above everything.  This was William Penn’s ideal, taken up fervently by Violet Oakley.



The Holy Experiment, though it comes out of mainstream (Nonconformist) Christianity, is rare as an organizing principle for political and governing institutions.




 A copy in the State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania  of one of an edition of 1000. 

It is Violet Oakley’s explanation, with gilt illumination and calligraphy of her historical narrative about the application of the Holy Experiment not just to the establishment of Pennslvania but also to the American Revolution and the Civil War.

It is subtitled ‘A Message from Pennsylvania to the World’.

In 1922 Violet Oakley presented a copy of this book to the Library of Congress during the Washington Conference on the limitation of armaments.



I have not found a similar set of values to have been applied anywhere else to anything larger than a commune.  Let alone a whole state.

I wait, though, to be corrected because the claim does seem a little bold, written down.





One of the finest examples of the Holy Experiment in action is the Jesuit church, Old St. Joseph, in Philadelphia

  Built in 1734 at a time when no Roman Catholic churches were allowed in the British Empire. 

It is hidden in a courtyard with only a simple cross in an entry corridor to note its presence; the authority of the Church on display only inside the church; and an American eagle guarding the statue of St. Joseph.

  This church, off a small street in the oldest part of Philadelphia, is testimony to the empirical survival for a significant time of the principles of the Holy Experiment.


As we know, the Congress stopped meeting in Philadelphia in 1800 and the whole power passed to New York.  


The ideals of the Holy Experiment, which remained the law of the Pennsylvanian land until the outbreak of the revolutionary war one hundred years later, became submerged with the economic rise and rise of New York city and state, expansion westwards from sea to shining sea, the continuing destitution of native Americans and the mounting of an attempt at separate statehood by the South fueled by slave-generated wealth


While the particularities of Pennsylvania’s political and religious foundation faded in a vast new American tapestry, it remains part of the common wealth of the United States.







Peaceable Kingdom and detail,, 1834, oil on canvas.  Edward Hicks, 1780-1849, American.

  This version, one of more than 60 , is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


This painting represents the extreme, idealized version of the principles of the Holy Experiment.

Edward Hicks, born an Anglican in Pennsylvania, became a Quaker preacher and painter in Philadelphia.  There on the left is William Penn, making treaties with American Indians:  treaties which were oral and are said never to have been broken by reason of the principles of the Holy Experiment.




The Woodmere Museum of the Art of Philadelphia and its Region, a vital institution vitalizing all it touches,  has mounted a most timely exhibition of this Pennsylvanian legacy.

Specifically of the effort of one woman, Violet Oakley, born in 1873 after the Civil War, to use the Holy Experiment to show how a nation divided and crushed by civil war could move to heal itself.

Timely because many have likened the institutional distress, moral indirection and rising violence in the United States to the post-civil war state.



Just as the meaning of the Holy Experiment was overshadowed by later developments, Violet Oakley’s artistic oeuvre was overshadowed by the evolution of art.

Her high romantic style, cousin to that of the British pre-Raphaelites and to European continental Symbolists, her idealized portraits, the instructional nature of her work began to run counter to the artistic innovations of modernism from 1875 onwards. 

Violet Oakley’s masterwork, the murals in the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania were begun in 1903, nine years before the Philadelphian Albert Barnes bought his first two Mastisse paintings from Leo and Gertrude Stein.  They were completed in 1927, fourteen years after that honorary Philadelphian, Marcel Duchamp, had his nude descending her staircase.   





The seal of the city of Philadelphia:  one of 400 tiles made by Henry Mercer (1856-1930, American) for the floor of the rotunda of the State House, Harrisburg.  They trace the history and activities of the people of the state.



We should probably add to the reasons for her deepening eclipse the increasing secularism of our society and the evolution of identity politics.  Her work may be unreadable for those who know little about Christianity.  Identity politics have alienated many from a Euro-centric narrative of the founding of the American State. 

In short, Violet Oakley speaks a language foreign to many, if not the majority, today.



Violet Oakley’s work, as the Woodmere director, Bill Valerio, notes and for the reasons just stated,  has not found its place in the American canon. 

He has taken this occasion to make the catalogue for this show a fulsome and masterly inventory and exploration of the artist’s thought and work, placing it in its historical and art-historical context.




The catalogue cover is a detail of Man and Science from the mural series, The Building of the House of Wisdom, 1910-11, Woodmere Museum of Art



This context is the era immediately after the end of the American civil war when American creatives effected an American Renaissance – architecture, murals, international exhibitions, painting, and social movements – with which they hoped to revive the nation.


I hope this catalogue finds wide readership.




Portrait of Violet Oakley, oil on canvas.  Date unknown.  Edith Emerson, 1888-1981, American.  Woodmere Museum, Philadelphia





Details of Self Portrait, ANA diploma presentation, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 1920.  Violet Oakley, 1874-1961, American

    National Academy Museum, New York on loan to the Woodmere Museum 2017


The Woodmere exhibition revives interest in both the Holy Experiment and in the work of Violet Oakley, whose  life bears witness to the self-actuating, indvidualistic ideal of the American experiment.






Digital print of a glass (restored) created by the Nicola d’Ascenzo Studio of a design by Violet Oakley for the library of a private house.  A replica replaced the original, destroyed in an accident.

The Museum notes says that the stained glass asks the question:  how is wisdom found.  And answers it: with a moral compass to guide a life.



And so what, in summary, is this all about? 


My whole life, Violet Oakley said, has been about peace.


It is about her belief that tolerance, peace and social justice are a legacy from the Quaker Holy Experiment to the world. 


The Quakers are celebrated as much for their values as for their techniques, in the tradition of British empiricism, to transform values into action.


Violet Oakley painted this transformation as it concerns Pennsylvanian history. 

She positioned it, however, not as a detail of Pennsylvanian history but as the establishment of a state founded on the idea of religious liberty. 


She further extended this idea to what she saw as the victory of these values in the Civil War.


She extended this idea even further to the international arena:   everything, she believed, should be done to achieve international peace by using law and not arms.


It is also about her commitment to the role of artist to the end of showing how art is a spiritual tool to the ends of peace, of tolerance. 

The Holy Experiment is a part of the best part of the American experiment.  We are living through something quite the opposite now.

Can this exhibition be any more timely?


This post is with many thanks to the Woodmere Museum’s director and staff who, with this exhibition, and with others before it, punching as always above their own weight,  are continuing in the core values of Violet Oakley’s legacy and enlivening a Philadelphian institution which itself is the legacy of her life partner, Edith Emerson.







Violet Oakley’s was a self-actualized life. 

Raised an Episcopalian, she joined the Christian Scientists to whose dynamic founder, Mary Baker Eddy, she was attracted along with the centrality within its teaching of the divine feminine.







She was only the second woman – the first being her teacher, Cecilia Beaux – to have taught (mural arts, between 1912 and 1917) at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the first such institution in the country.


Even though Violet Oakley became assimilated to a wealthy and progressive socio-economic class and to live in that part of Philadelphia which has the distinction of being the oldest  (race) integrated  (Mt. Airy, Philadelphia) part of any American city,  the courage that it took for Violet Oakley to invite Edith Emerson to live and work with her in partnership, cannot be underestimated.

This was 1918.




Portrait of Edith Emerson Lecturing, 1935, oil on canvas.  The Woodmere Museum of which Edith Emerson, a teacher, was also director



Edith Emerson, 1888-1981, was a teacher of art history, the director of Woodmere for many years, and the archivist and keeper of Violet Oakley’s work.




The Calling of Elisha, 1920, oil on canvas.  Edith Emerson, 1888-1981, Woodmere Art Museum.

Edith Emerson made this design for a synagogue in suburban Philadelphia. Elijah on the left acknowledges Elisha on the right.  The two are to be joined forever.  This painting is a metaphorical rendering of Edith Emerson’s relationship with Violet Oakley.


Their partnership survived from 1918 to Violet Oakley’s death in 1961.



Finally, Violet Oakley, against significant odds and not a little hostility from men, supported herself exclusively as an artist.  

It was her fortune to have been born and raised in a family of at least two generations of artists.  She studied both at home  (New Jersey) and at the Art Students League in New York, in Paris in 1894 with, among others Edmond Aman-Jean. 

His poster below for the second Rosicrucian salon in 1893 in Paris  represents, in the figure of Beatrice, the Rosicrucian belief in the spiritual potency of art, an idea which infused Violet Oakley’s work.





Beatrix, c. 1892-893, a lithograph made for the second salon of  Rosicrucian art, Paris.  Aman-Jean, 1858-1936, French. 

Loaned by Barbara Liebowitz Graphics, NY to the Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2017

 It is another example of the functioning of the Holy Experiment that the second Rosicrucian settlement in North America – one of a wave of European pietists – came in 1694 to settle not far from the Woodmere Museum on the banks of the Wissahickon river




Beatrice and Dante, a study for part of a stained glass, Beatrice and Dante, c. 1904-5.  Courtesy of the Drexel Collection at Drexel University.  Photograph by Daniel Morran.


Violet Oakley had the advantage – for a term in 1896 – of training by Cecilia Beaux, one of the finest portraitists of her day, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Before moving, for lack of funds in the wake of family disaster, to Drexel Institute (now University) where, 1896-1897, she had the further fortune to be trained by Howard Pyle, the premier illustrator of the time and one of N.C. Wyeth’s teachers.



It was her talent  which brought her in 1902 to the attention of those people who appointed her to furbish the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg with murals. 

A work of 25 years, worked discontinuously from 1902-1927, in a total artistic career of 50 years.



In between working on her commissions for the State Capitol building, Violet Oakley received many more commissions:  mural work in private houses and institutions, stained glass, illustration and portraits.





Portrait of Houston Woodward and detail,  1922, oil on canvas.  On loan by the family to the Woodmere Museum in 2017




The Pearls (Portrait of Mrs. James Crosby Brown (Agnes Hewlett) and Son, Alexandre) and detail, 1911, oil on canvas.  Private collection on loan to The Woodmere Museum in 2017




Irish Woman (Miss Amy Cryan), date unknown, oil on canvas.  On loan from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to the Woodmere Museum in 2017




Portrait of Sarah Ruth Wood Ferguson (1890-1969), oil on canvasboard, 1943.

  Collection of George McNeely IV, on loan to the Woodmere Museum in 2017




Albert Spalding, American violinist, 1929, oil on canvas. Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia




Andrei Gromyko (1909-1989) Delegate from the USSR to the United Nations, 1946, black and white conte on bluff paper. Later Soviet Foreign Minister, 1957-85;  Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, 1985-1988.   

Woodmere Art Museum

Violet Oakley lent her support and weight both to the League of Nations and to the United Nations when it was founded.  These, for her, were important as institutions founded to use the law for the establishment and maintenance of peace.




Alice in Wonderland, c. 1920s, oil on canvas.  On loan from the Free Library of Philadelphia to the Woodmere Museum in 2017




June, 1902, oil, charcoal and graphite on composition board, 1902.  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts




W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp, c. 1928, pastel on brown paper.  Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington



Study of Goliath for World War II diptych of David and Goliath for the Military Chapel in Indiantown Gap, 1945-46, pastel on paper.  Violet Oakley,  Woodmere Museum of Art





Youth and Arts and detail from the mural The Building of the House of Wisdom, 1910-11, oil on canvas.  Woodmere Museum of Art. 

This is a scene to represent the flowering of Mankind.  The pianist is thought to be Leopold Stokowski whom Violet Oakley drew often when attended the Philadelphia Orchestra.




The Child and Tradition and detail, from the mural series The Building of the House of Wisdom, 1901-11, oil on canvas.  Violet Oakley      .  Woodmere Art Museum. 

This was a commission for a private house in Philadelphia.  The child, helped by the works of the Ancients, Cicero, Dante, Confucius and Solomon, is on his way to maturity.









The Wise and Foolish Virgins, stained glass lancet windows originally for St. Peter’s Church, Germantown, Philadelphia, 1908-1909.

The story is from the Gospel of St. Matthew and is about being prepared for judgement day.

  Now at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia.




The State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania


The choice of Violet Oakley in 1902 as muralist for the   Governor’s Executive Reception Room gave her the opportunity to enlarge her reputation.  Her appointment  and the fees she received – the first for a woman for such a large commission – was widely commented.  

Her 14 murals, created between 1903 and 1906, for this room  – and all 43 murals created for the Capitol, cannot be appreciated except in the flesh and in the paint.  They are friezes which tell stories, richly illustrated, accompanied by calligraphic scripts, and visually gorgeous. attached.  

A few panels from each room cannot suffice to tell the stories Violet Oakley told.  But here are few of her images. 


Violet Oakley’s enabling idea came entirely from William Penn’s Holy Experiment:  the efficacy of using tolerance and peaceful means to resolve the problems of the world.

For the Governor’s Executive Reception Room was the founding of Quakerism during the crisis of the English Reformation. 




Views of the Governor’s Executive Reception Room.

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.



The Burning of the Books at Oxford, 1522. 

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  



George Fox (the Quaker founder) on the Mount of Vision, 1652.

  State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.   Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.



William Penn, student at Christ Church, Oxford, 1660.

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.    Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.



Penn’s Arrest While Preaching at Meeting. Examination before the Lieutenant of the Tower of London.  Penn Writing in Prison.

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.   Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.




Penn Liberating Imprisoned Friends.

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 




Penn’s Vision.  

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.





Penn’s first view of the Promised Land. 

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Image taken from the web.  Of unknown provenance.



Upon the death of the State Capitol’s appointed muralist in 1911, Violet Oakley picked up the balance of his work for the mural decoration of the Senate and the Supreme Court. 



The Senate’s theme – murals completed in 1919 – was Unity and the Creation and Preservation of the Union from the time of the American revolution through the ending of its Civil War. 


Violet Oakley then advanced further into her current times with the message that tolerance and peace are more effective than force and bloodshed. 






Views into the Senate Chamber, State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.


The Slave Ship Ransomed.  Senate Chamber 

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.


This depicts a legend of the ransoming of a slave ship by a Quaker in Nova Scotia where slavery was not legal. Quaker held slaves in Pennsylvania.  In 1758, leadership of the Quaker community was barred to slaveholders.  In 1778, Quakers who held slaves were disowned.  Under Quaker influence, slavery was banned in a program of partial emancipations in 1780.

The subject remains sensitive because several of the Founding Fathers, often in Philadelphia between 1775 and 1800 when Philadelphia ceased to be the country’s capital, evaded the 1780 state law on slavery.  A position which does not redound to the credit of these men.




George Washington Marching Through Philadelphia, 1777.

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.   Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.




George Washington at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.





State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.



Lincoln at Gettysburg, 1863.  

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.



The Slaves of the Earth Driven Forward and Upward by their Slave Driver. 

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.



The Armies of the Earth Striving to Take the Kingdom of Unity by Force. 

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.




The central frieze, International Understanding and Unity, Supreme Manifestation of Enlightenment.  Image from the web of unknown provenance.

The woman in blue is a female impersonation of the Waters of Life from whom flows the sacred waters to nourish all the world.  She also is making reference to female suffrage.

An inscription is inscribed on thel panel with a passage from the Apocalypse:

“He carried me away to a great and high mountain and shewed me the Great City and he shewed me a pure river of Water of Life as crystal proceeding out of the throne. The Leaves of the Tree were for the Healing of Nations.”


Violet Oakley at work in the Senate chamber, State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 

Image from the web of an original, photographer unknown, in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.



The director of the Museum associates the gown of the the central female figure with Marian blue and the entire figure with the Mary in several Renaissance renderings.

  One of these is this, c. 1470, by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448-1494) in the Vespucci family chapel in Florence. 



One of several small subpanels which surround the major murals.  



For the Supreme Courtwhose murals were dedicated in early summer 1927 – she chose as theme an allegorical view of the evolution of the law. 

This she represented this as a movement up a musical scale beginning with the Divine Law from which she believed that all law flows.  She continued with the law of nature and with international law.

The law, as was William Penn’s ideal, above everything.



A view into the Supreme Court, State Capitol Building, Pennsylvania.

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.   Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.



The Mosaic Decalogue.  Supreme Court, State Capitol Building, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.



Divine Law, Love, and Wisdom, Supreme Court Chamber, State Capitol.  

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.

A monogram of illuminated letters spelling out LAW.  Seraphim and Cherubim further put in places letters forming LOVE and WISDOM



Detail of William Penn as Law-Giver.  Supreme Court  

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.   Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017.



Portrait of United States Supreme Court  fourth Chief Justice, John Marshall 1755-1835, whose long term (1801-1835) is said to this day never to have been been superseded for its influence on the  functioning of the US Government and on the philosophy and practice of the law.

State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of Darryl Moran, 2017




Il Convito (The Banquet):  Edith Emerson in page costume with Guests.  Date unknown, oil on canvas.  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

Edith Emerson as her alter ego, ‘Giovanni’, serving her mistress, ‘Violetta’.  This painting celebrates the completion of the murals for the Senate Chamber in the Pennsylvania State House.  






Portrait of Violet Oakley, oil on canvas.  Date unknown.  Edith Emerson, 1888-1981, American.  Woodmere Museum, Philadelphia.

Behind her head is a copy of Il Convivo



My whole life, Violet Oakley said, has been about peace.




The Angel of Victory Triptych, 1941.

  Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington. The image is from the web.

Made originally for a naval base, this is one of 25 wartime altars made by the artist.  On the left the Archangel Michael.  On the right St. George.  In the center the Archangel Gabriel proclaiming peace with an olive branch.






**The Holy Experiment from the website of Quakers in the World

Fair treatment for Native Americans: King Charles II had given Penn the land.

But Penn did not think it was the King’s to give: in his view the land belonged to the Leni Lenape Indians who had been living there long before the colonists arrived. He was determined to buy the land from them, at a fair price. He signed a treaty with them at Shackamaxon in 1682.

No military: the King was amazed when Penn chose not to bring arms and soldiers with him. This was a complete contrast to other colonies, where there were frequent battles with the Native Americans.

A new approach to governance: William Penn was the ’Absolute Proprietor’ of Pennsylvania, under the Royal Charter. That meant he could do as he chose, provided he paid the King an annual rent (2 beaver skins and 20% of any gold or silver).  However, Penn believed that government should be

Free to the people under it, whatever be the frame, where the laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws


In 1682 Penn set out the first version of Pennsylvania’s Constitution in the ‘Great Law’. In 1683 this was augmented, in the ‘Second Frame of Government’. When he returned to Pennsylvania in 1699 it was revised to become the ‘Charter of Privileges’.

This remained in place until the War of Independence, in 1776.

The key features of all these documents were:

Freedom of religion: all could worship freely, as they chose. Pennsylvania would be open to people of all religious persuasions, not only Quakers. 

An enlightened penal code; prison was to reform, not only to punish.  People in prison were to be taught a trade, so that they could be gainfully employed on release, and they were to be treated humanely. The death penalty was to be confined to murder and treason. In Britain at the time many relatively trivial offences incurred the death penalty and prisons were terrible places.

Work for everyone: he made occupations in agriculture, crafts and trade much more accessible than elsewhere. Pennsylvania became known as “the best poor man’s country.”

Education for everyone: girls and boys were all to be educated. This was a remarkable innovation at a time when most children were illiterate, especially girls. And the education was to be useful, and practical, so that all could find employment. This was characteristic of Quakers in Britain too.

A widened franchise: all men were to be given the vote. Equality did not extend to giving women the vote, but in England only a small proportion of men could vote, namely those owning property. There was no mention of slaves or ‘Indians’ however.

Town planning for healthy living: he designed Philadelphia on a grid pattern, with wide public squares and parks. He had seen the ravages caused by the Great Plague in London, and the fire that followed, and he was determined that his ‘greene countrie towne‘ would be healthy and safe. This approach to design was later emulated all over America.