January 2009 | Lacking eyewitness accounts or written records, Chapman joined the ranks of historical painters and wove a few factual threads together to produce a finished tapestry of image and meaning.
Since ancient times, people have learned the lessons of religion, philosophy, and history from the art in churches, temples, and public places. The government buildings in Washington repeat this pattern, particularly the Capitol. Its Rotunda, completed in 1824 and originally ornamented with four murals by John Trumbull (1756-1843) depicting scenes from American history, has been called by many the symbolic heart of the United States. While Trumbull's commission had been decided by a nearly unified Congress, when the question of completing four additional murals for the Rotunda was raised in 1828, the discussion was so contentious that it was ultimately swept away in a storm of political, local, and regional squabbling. In 1834 a committee of the House of Representatives announced their intention to have the murals completed. Artists quickly began petitioning Congress for the opportunity to win a commission. One of these artists was Chapman.
Born in Alexandria, Virginia, Chapman, at his father's insistence, first attempted to study law, but his artistic talent was noticed and encouraged by his early teachers, the artists George Cooke (1793-1849) and Charles Bird King (1785-1862). King suggested Chapman study with Thomas Sully (1783-1872) in Philadelphia, and Sully, in turn, introduced him to the drawing master Pietro Ancora (active 1800-1843). In 1828 Chapman went to study in Italy, supported by his first patron, John Linton (c. 1745-1834), a southern planter and merchant who often lodged in Alexandria at Gadsby Tavern, which was owned by Chapman's grandfather. Upon his return, Chapman traveled through his home state earning a modest living painting portraits and landscapes while absorbing Virginia's legends and history. After settling in New York in 1834 he became one of the most popular book illustrators in the country (see Fig. 2) and the first to engrave his own work. He furnished more than fourteen hundred engravings for Harper and Brothers' Illuminated Bible (1843-1846) alone, and also published The American Drawing-Book: A Manual for the Amateur and Basis of Study for the Professional Artist (1847). The latter went through many editions, became widely used as a textbook, and was hailed as the first nationally marketed book to offer a basis of study for both student artists and professionals.