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Guide to the McGuigan Collection of John Gadsby Chapman Etchings
[1838-1845]
 PR 265

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Kelly McAnnaney

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on February 24, 2016
Description is in English.

Biographical Note

John Gadsby Chapman was born in Alexandria, Virginia in 1808. He studied painting in Philadelphia before traveling to Europe in 1828. Chapman spent almost two years in Italy, studying and copying the masters. In 1831 he returned to Virginia and traveled throughout the state, painting portraits and landscapes, especially of places relating to George Washington.

Until his move to New York in 1834, Chapman worked primarily as a painter of history. While he had some success, with paintings such as The Baptism of Pocahontas in 1840, he became most well known through his book illustration. His first major success with illustration came with his etchings for the book  A Christmas Gift from Fairy Land, written by James Kirke Paulding. These illustrations, along with his etchings for John Keese's book,  The Poets of America: Illustrated by One of Her Painters, are often considered some of his finest work.

Chapman also worked on the highly illustrated Harper's Illuminated Bible, published in 1843. Of the bible's 1,600 engravings, (excluding the letters), 1,400 were done by Chapman. He also created 1,078 floriated letters used to begin each chapter.

While continuing to paint and create illustrations, Chapman wrote and illustrated an instructional book on drawing titled The American Drawing-Book. While popular, the book cost him more money than it made. With this type of poor business decision, an impractical nature and general ill health, Chapman was in a constant state of debt throughout his life. By 1848, these factors led Chapman to leave the United States with his wife and children and sail for London. They traveled through Europe before settling in Rome in 1850, remaining there for the next 32 years.

Although he enjoyed the climate and lifestyle of Rome, Chapman wasn't able to improve his financial standing. By 1864, he found himself destitute. Chapman returned to the United States in 1877, where he attempted to restore his career. Unfortunately he never pulled himself out of dept, relying on his children for support. He lived in each, residing in Brooklyn, Mexico, and finally Staten Island, where he died in 1889. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.