The Library of Virginia

Father and Son: The Works of John Gadsby Chapman and Conrad Wise Chapman

Image of Artist Pallet Father and Son: The Works of John Gadsby Chapman and Conrad Wise Chapman, an exhibition on display at the Library of Virginia from 16 October 1998 to 22 March 1999, presented more than one hundred sketches, watercolors, engravings, and oils by these two Virginia artists for the first time since the 1960s. The exhibition consisted of three sections: John Gadsby Chapman's work as a leading illustrator in the 1830s and 1840s; scenes of Italy and France by both Chapmans; and oils and watercolors of Mexico by Conrad Wise Chapman. Lenders to the exhibition included the Valentine Museum, the Jamestown-Yorktown Educational Trust, and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Mayo.
Born in Alexandria in 1808, John Gadsby Chapman studied painting briefly in Philadelphia before traveling to Europe in 1828, where he spent almost two years in Italy. He returned to Alexandria in 1831 and exhibited paintings in Alexandria, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Boston, and Philadelphia. Chapman traveled in Virginia, painting portraits and landscapes, especially of places relating to George Washington. In 1834 he settled in New York City where he became a member of the National Academy of Design and developed into a popular illustrator.

John Gadsby Chapman in His Studio, 1881. Engraving.
John Gadsby Chapman in His Studio, 1881. Engraving.
Courtesy of the Valentine Museum.

The Baptism of Pocahontas, 1840. By John Gadsby Chapman.
The Baptism of Pocahontas, 1840. By John Gadsby Chapman.
Engraving. The Library of Virginia.

John Gadsby Chapman produced a number of history paintings based on the English settlement at Jamestown. Both The Crowning of Powhatan and The Warning of Powhatan were exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1836. His Landing at Jamestown and The Crowning of Powhatan were later engraved in the 1840s for popular magazines. Chapman's friend Henry Alexander Wise had introduced a resolution in the United States House of Representatives in 1834 to form a committee to select American artists to complete the United States Capitol Rotunda cycle begun by John Trumbull. On 28 February 1837 the Select Committee chose John Vanderlyn, Robert Weir, Henry Inman, and John G. Chapman to paint scenes from American history. According to his contract, Chapman received $10,000 in four payments. The finished painting, The Baptism of Pocahontas, was unveiled on 30 November 1840 and was accompanied by a pamphlet explaining the artist's approach to the subject and a brief history of Pocahontas and the Jamestown colony.
The Chapman family--John, wife Elizabeth, daughter Mary, and sons John Linton and Conrad--left for Europe in 1848 and settled in the small American colony in Rome in 1850. Although removed from American collectors who frequented the National Academy of Design and artists' studios and publishers in need of illustrations for magazines and books, Chapman responded to the growing American tourist trade in Italy by painting small oils of Italians in colorful costumes and scenes of the Campagna. Chapman's fortunes took a dramatic downward slide, however, when the American Civil War brought the tourist trade to a virtual standstill and son Conrad left to fight for the Confederacy.

The Chapman family fell apart in the 1870s. Conrad wandered in Mexico and France, John Linton (known as Jack) returned to New York City in 1878, Elizabeth Chapman died in Rome in 1874, and John G. Chapman became dependent on support from his compatriots. In 1884 Chapman, in poor health, returned to the United States. He visited Conrad in Mexico, but lived the rest of his life with Jack in Brooklyn. John Gadsby Chapman died in 1889 and was buried in a pauper's grave.

Grain Threshing on the Campagna, 1881.
Grain Threshing on the Campagna, 1881.
By John Gadsby Chapman.
Oil over engraving. Courtesy of the Valentine Museum.

Picket Post, 1863. By Conrad Wise Chapman.
Picket Post, 1863. By Conrad Wise Chapman.
Engraving. Courtesy of the Valentine Museum.

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1842 and named to honor two of his father's friends, Conrad Wise Chapman began his career as an artist in 1855. He ran away from home in 1861 to fight for the Confederacy and served in a Kentucky regiment. Conrad was wounded at Shiloh and saw action in Mississippi and Louisiana before receiving a transfer to Virginia late in 1862. His father wrote Henry Alexander Wise, an old friend and then a commander of the 59th Virginia Infantry Regiment, to take Conrad under his protection. Chapman was transferred to the 46th Virginia, and when the regiment was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1863, Chapman painted and sketched the city's fortifications and defensive weapons.

Valley of Mexico, 1902. By Conrad Wise Chapman
Valley of Mexico, 1902. By Conrad Wise Chapman.
Oil on wood. Courtesy of the Valentine Museum.

He spent a six-month furlough in Rome in 1864 but returned to Virginia shortly after Lee surrendered. Unable to reconcile himself to the South's defeat, Chapman traveled to Mexico and, enchanted by the scenery and people, painted a series of views of the Valley of Mexico. After spending time in France and England, Chapman returned to Mexico in 1883. To support himself and his wife, Laura Seagar Chapman, Conrad colored photographs and painted variations of his earlier Valley of Mexico views. The Chapmans moved to Richmond in 1898, where Conrad sold 31 paintings of Charleston Harbor during the Civil War to Granville G. Valentine for the Confederate Literary Society (now the Museum of the Confederacy). The couple drifted between Mexico and New York until they settled in Hampton, Virginia, in 1909. Conrad Wise Chapman died in Hampton on 10 December 1910. His widow donated his paintings and sketches to the Virginia State Library, which in 1941 traded the collection to the Valentine Museum for newspapers and manuscript materials.

Bassham, Ben L. Conrad Wise Chapman: Artist & Soldier of the Confederacy.
Kent, Oh.: Kent State University Press, 1998.

Campbell, William P. John Gadsby Chapman, Painter and Illustrator.
Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1962.

Catterall, Louise F., ed. Conrad Wise Chapman 1842-1910:
An Exhibition of His Works in the Valentine Museum
. Richmond: The Valentine Museum, 1962.