Americas Finest: The Red Rose Girls (1863-1935)

Elizabeth Shippen Green, Violet Oakley, Jessie Willcox Smith and Henrietta Cozens in their Chestnut Street studio, 1901.
Photograph shows Green, Oakley, and Smith seated, each holding a rose, while Cozens holds a watering can over their heads, pretending to water them. Identification on verso (handwritten): The red roses; Elizabeth Shippen Green, Violet Oakley, Jessie Willcox Smith, Henrietta Cozens; with Violet Oakley poster [in background] for first exhibition at the Plastic Club; taken at 1523 Chestnut Street, when they planned to move to "The Red Rose", Villanova.

Three Philadelphia women became successful illustrators for books and magazines working in a profession largely dominated by men at the turn of the 20th century:  Jessie Willcox smith (1863-1935) Violet Oakley (1874-1961) and their colleague Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954).  They forged an unconventional communal relationship based on passion for their art and love for one another. Under the mentorship of their teacher, the illustrator Howard Pyle, they earned commissions from the nation’s most prestigious periodicals, including Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post. For instance, Violet Oakley’s paintings now hang in the Pennsylvania state capitol building.  Along with their friend Henrietta Cozens, they set up a household at Philadelphia’s beautiful Red Rose inn and called themselves the ‘Cogs family,’ a name formed from the initial letters of each of their surnames. However, society and the press referred to them as ‘The Red Rose Girls.’  In their own individual ways these women were rebels, and their story, often romantic, yet resolutely stylized illustrations were the epitome of respectability. 
 Violet Oakley, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Henrietta Cozens, 1901

Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green with Prince the dog in the garden at Cogslea. Elizabeth Shippen Green stands in the garden by the fountain, the dog Prince laying at her feet. Jessie Willcox Smith is stepping through the garden door. 1901.

I know I shouldn't single just one woman out when all were amazing individually. However, Violet Oakley became known not only as an illustrator but a muralist as well. So for this reason she will be highlighted here. 

 Violet Oakley standing beside a portion of her 44-foot-wide mural, International Unity and Understanding.

Violet Oakley (1874-1961) was America's greatest woman muralist in the early 20th century. She became famous for her murals in 1905 in the Pennsylvania state capital. That success led to many commissions and an international reputation as a painter of moral and idealistic subjects. She painted the first delegates of the League of Nations and the United Nations, and published illustrated books in support of world peace, disarmament and human rights.

As Violet travelled and studied throughout Amerca and Europe, she painted portraits and landscapes in an impressionistic style. In 1896 her father's illness forced her to concentrate on illustrations solely. The technique she developed as an illustrator grew into the mural style that made her famous. 

 Violet Oakley's mural painted on the walls of the Governor's Room of the Pennsylvania state Capitol Building

Penn's Vision," by Violet Oakley, Governor's Reception Room in the Pennsylvania State Capitol, Harrisburg, PA.
 In the 1910s, Violet Oakley painted forty-three murals in the Governors Grand Reception Room, the Senate, and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. 

The Holy Experiment by Violet Oakley

A visit to Pennsylvania's Capitol in Harrisburg is not complete without seeing the famous mural series created by Philadelphia artist Violet Oakley (1874-1961). The commission to paint these thirteen murals for the Governor's Reception Room, which was awarded to Oakley in 1902 and completed in 1906, signaled not only her status as a major Pennsylvania artist but also was a milestone in the history of American art. It was the largest public commission awarded to a woman in the United States to that date. With this series, titled The Holy Experiment, Oakley garnered a gold medal in 1905 from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and significant national recognition throughout her career.
Violet Oakley in her studio, 1901

 Violet Oakley in her studio at 1523 Chestnut Street. Photograph taken before 1898

I just love this photograph of Elizabeth Shippen Green in her studio at the Red Rose Inn, 1903

Violet Oakley and Henrietta Cozens (ca. 1864-1940). Cozens lived with the Red Rose Girls and tended to the overall upkeep of the house and gardens. Oakley and Cozens enjoy a cup of tea together while sitting on the terrace at Cogslea with the family dog, Prince, seated behind Cozens.

 After leaving the Red Rose Inn the Girls moved into Cogslea, in Mount Airy on the edge of the Wissahickon section of Fairmount Park. Based on an acronym of the foursome’s last names, the Girls liked to refer to themselves as the “Cogs” family. Jessie Wilcox Smith often photographed her subjects in the surrounding grounds of the estate. Shown in the garden, the subject stands in front of the pergola next to a fountain (bottom left). The adjacent portrait captures a glimpse of the Cogslea estate (bottom right). 

 The Thousand Quilt, 1904, by Elizabeth Shippen Green

 Morning, 1902, by Jessie Wilcox Smith

I just wanted to provide a glimpse into the world of three amazingly talented turn of the century American female illustrators and muralist.  Photographs taken from American Archives Smithsonian Institution

Feel free to leave comments, 


Hermes said…
Absolutely fascinating, particularly Violet's murals which I'd never explored.
Kimberly Eve said…
I have to agree with you Hermes. Makes me want to get back to Pennsylvania and take a look at those murals! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
Anonymous said…
A nice tribute to these ladies ... talented and groundbreakers.
Kimberly Eve said…
Thanks so much for commenting. I agree with you. They were amazing women.

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