Thornton Oakley, circa 1920
March 27, 1881|
|Died||April 4, 1953
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Thornton Oakley (March 27, 1881 – April 4, 1953) was an American artist and illustrator.
Thornton Oakley was born on Sunday, March 27, 1881, in Pittsburgh. He was the son of John Milton Oakley and Imogen Brashear Oakley. He graduated from Shady Side Academy in 1897, and studied at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving B.S. and M.S. degrees in architecture in 1901 and 1902.
Oakley began his study of illustration with Howard Pyle in 1902 at Chadds Ford, in the mill that now houses the Brandywine River Museum, and described his first day there in a talk given in 1951 at the Free Library of Philadelphia:
"There we four - my new cronies - Allen Tupper True, George Harding, Gordon McCouch and I - made our first sketches from a model, and our efforts were frightful to behold! Not one of us had had a palette in our hands ever before: I had not the least idea as to procedure. My attempts were terrifying to behold, and when H.P. came to me to criticize my work he paused for a long, long time before speaking, and I know that he must have been appalled."
Oakley studied with Howard Pyle for three years. During his first class, Pyle stood before his easel for a while before commenting that "either you are color-blind or else you are a genius." It turned out with time that neither was true. Oakley never learned the nuances of color but had an instinctual like for the primaries - red, yellow and blue.
Oakley became an illustrator and writer for periodicals, including Century, Collier's, Harper's Monthly and Scribner's. In the years 1914-19 and 1921-36 he was in charge of the Department of Illustration at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. In 1914-15 he also taught drawing at the University of Pennsylvania, and gave lectures at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Curtis Institute. He was a member of the jury of selection and advisory committee of the Department of Fine Arts at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 and the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition in 1926.
During World War I, lithographs of his patriotic drawings of war work at the shipyard at Hog Island, Philadelphia were distributed by the United States government. During World War II he did three sets of pictures of the war effort for National Geographic Magazine in 1941, 1943, and 1945. After the war he was commissioned to paint industrial subjects for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Philadelphia Electric Company, Sun Oil, and other industries. In 1938-39 he did six mural panels for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on epochs in science.
Oakley was deeply influenced by Howard Pyle's philosophy of illustration. In the talk at the Free Library referred to above, he said: ″We never heard one word from our beloved teacher concerning tools and methods. His utterances were only of the spirit, thought, philosophy, ideals, vision, purpose.″ Oakley presided at the private viewing of the Howard Pyle Memorial Exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Alliance in 1923, when reminiscences of Pyle were given by Elizabeth Green Elliott, Jessie Willcox Smith, George Harding, and Frank E. Schoonover. In praising Pyle, Oakley said: ″Illustration is the highest type of pictorial art ... because illustration is simply a pictorial MAKING CLEAR, and if a picture makes clear a message in a big way, it is an illustration, whether it be made for magazine, book, mural decoration, or exhibition.″ Oakley also developed his own philosophy of illustration, as put forth in an entire essay on that subject in The American Magazine of Art in 1919. Oakley made a large collection of Pyle - drawings, prints, books and other items, including letters and sketchbooks - which he presented to the Free Library of Philadelphia in November 1951.
Throughout his career, Oakley was a member of many cultural institutions and clubs. He was a charter member of the Philadelphia Water Color Club in 1903, serving as its secretary from 1912 to 1938, at that time becoming its president. In 1932, in recognition of his artistic services to France, the Third French Republic decorated Oakley with the Palmes d'Officier d'Académie, an honor rarely conferred upon foreigners.
Among the books Oakley illustrated are:
an adventure novel for young readers,
A Son of the Desert by Bradley Gilman (1909, Century)
(which was also serialized in St. Nicholas Magazine, 1908-1909);
a newer edition of an 1855 historical novel,
Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley (1920, George W. Jacobs);
a student edition, with questions, notes, and a continuation of Franklin's life, of
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by D.H. Montgomery (1927, Ginn);
a geography textbook co-illustrated by N.C. Wyeth,
New Geography, Book One by Alexis Everett Frye (1928, Ginn);
a book of fifteen Breton folk tales,
Folk Tales of Brittany by Elsie Masson (1929, Macrae Smith);
two books published posthumously to the death of his mother -
a book of 23 poems, Awake America! (1934, Macrae Smith),
and a book describing six Colonial-era mansions, Six Historic Homesteads (1935 and 1962, University of Pennsylvania Press)
- both of which were authored by his mother, Imogen Brashear Oakley (1854-1933);
and, most notably, a series of eight travel books,
each containing more than a hundred pen-and-ink drawings -
Hill-Towns of the Pyrenees (1923, Century; 1924, John Long Ltd.),
Cloud-Lands of France (1927, Century),
Enchanted Brittany (1930, Century),
The Heart of Provence (1936, D. Appleton-Century),
Scandinavia Beckons (1938, D. Appleton-Century),
Behold the West Indies (1941 (1st), 1943 (2nd), D. Appleton-Century; 1951, Longmans Green),
Kaleidoscopic Quebec (1947, D. Appleton-Century; 1952, Longmans Green),
and Our Pennsylvania: Keys to the Keystone State (1950, Bobbs-Merrill)
- all of which were authored by his wife, Amy Oakley.
The following list is representative of the many magazines for which Oakley produced illustrations. In most instances, he illustrated the articles of others, but for some articles, he was both author and illustrator:
The American Magazine of Art - 1919, 1925
Appleton's Magazine - 1907
Asia - 1918
Century - 1905-1912, 1916-1919
Collier's - 1904-1918
Everybody's - 1906-1909
Forum - 1926-1927
Harper's Monthly Magazine - 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908–1915, 1916, 1918
International Studio - 1913, 1915
Ladies' Home Journal - 1908
Leslie's - 1904
Metropolitan - 1907-1910
National Geographic Magazine - 1942-1945, 1942, 1943
Nation's Business - 1919
Pennsylvania Magazine - 1947
Scientific American - 1918
St. Nicholas Magazine - 1908-1909
Scribner's Magazine - 1905-1916
System - 1909
Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine - 1948
One notable magazine article, which Oakley wrote but did not illustrate, was a tribute to his friend and fellow artist, Lucy Scarborough Conant (1867-1920), who had recently died. In this article, written in 1921, Oakley presented his own definition of an artist: For an artist is not merely one who paints with pigments. Whether a man speak with brush or mallet; pen or note; by utterances, statesmanship, gift, or friendship; whether by his daily routine, business, or by whatever activity to which his existence may be called; — if he thrill the inmost being, lift with visions toward the stars, reveal the beauty of ennobling life, then, and then alone, may he be named by that most inspiring of all titles, Artist.
- Thornton Oakley papers, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum
- Pitz, Henry C. (1968). The Brandywine Tradition. Weathervane Books. p. 119. ISBN 0-517-16431-0.
- ″Illustration″ by Thornton Oakley, in The American Magazine of Art, Vol. 10, No. 10 (August, 1919), pp. 369-376
- The Heart of Provence, by Amy Oakley, 1936, D. Appleton-Century - biographical note on rear flap of dust jacket
- Find a Grave Thornton Oakley
- Thornton Oakley, a 34-page booklet prepared for a 1983 exhibition of his work at the Brandywine River Museum; Brandywine Conservancy, Gėnė E. Harris (Curator), copyright 1983
- ″Lucy Scarborough Conant – Artist″ by Thornton Oakley, in The American Magazine of Art, Vol. 12, No. 8 (August, 1921), pp. 269-273