Minerva Chapman (1858-1947)

Minvera Chapman, photographed in her Paris studio, circa 1906. Reproduced from Mary Jo McNamara and Elise Davis Chan, Minerva J. Chapman (1858-1947) (1997).

Born in Sandbanks (now Altmar), New York, Minerva Josephine Chapman was brought to Chicago at a young age. Her father, a successful owner of tanneries and later first president of the First National Bank of Chicago, gave Chapman the financial independence to pursue a career in art as a single woman. She attended the University of Chicago but then graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, in 1876. In Chicago, Chapman studied art privately with Annie C. Shaw, the first woman to be elected an academician of the Chicago Academy of Design. Chapman was among the first students to enroll in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (renamed the Art Institute of Chicago in 1882) where her most important teacher was John Vanderpoel. During her years there, Chapman made several trips East for additional study with a variety of instructors.
In 1886, Chapman traveled to Europe, visiting Paris, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland. She studied in Munich before attending the popular Académie Julian in Paris, but soon left to study privately with American painter Charles Lasar, with whom her friend Jessie Pixley Lacey also worked. Lasar was an influential teacher who championed women artists; he also encouraged them to paint landscapes en plein air in the manner of the Impressionists and he introduced Chapman to still life painting. Chapman returned to Chicago, where she exhibited with success at the Art Institute and with the newly formed Society of Western Artists. In 1900, just as miniature painting was enjoying a widespread revival, she began making the portrait miniatures that became an important facet of her work. Chapman was back in Paris in 1903, creating both oil-on-canvas paintings and miniatures in watercolor on ivory, a painstaking medium of which she became a recognized master. In 1908, the Art Institute presented a solo exhibition of her miniature paintings, of which Chapman eventually completed nearly two hundred, including still life images as well as portraits. Under the influence of Emile René Ménard, with whom she studied privately, Chapman also took up the practice of making small, boldly brushed oil studies painted on site.
With the exception of the years during World War I, which she spent in San Diego and in the Chicago area, Chapman maintained a dual presence in Paris and in Chicago. In Paris, notwithstanding her expatriate status, she was typically noted in the American press as “Minerva Chapman of Chicago.” She exhibited in the Art Institute’s Chicago and Vicinity as well as its American art and watercolor annual shows and with the Chicago Society of Miniature Painters; she was also regularly featured in the Paris Salon exhibitions and at many other national and international venues, and she won gold medals in the Panama California expositions of 1915 and 1916. In Paris Chapman served as president of the International Art Union and along with Mary Cassatt and Elizabeth Nourse, she was one of the first American women admitted to membership in the prestigious Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. After Chapman left Paris to settle in Palo Alto, California, in 1925, she became active in local artists’ organizations, where she won several honors.  Failing eyesight forced Chapman to give up painting in 1932, several years before her death at the age of eighty-eight. Since the early 1970s she has been the subject of several small exhibitions.

Minerva Chapman, Interior, dated 1906
Oil on canvas, 22 ½ x 16 ¼ inches

Minerva Chapman, Interior, dated 1906 Oil on canvas, 22 ½ x 16 ¼ inches

Minerva Chapman’s untitled interior scene takes in a corner of the artist’s studio, where a tall drop-front desk, with an armchair pulled up to it, is placed between an upholstered sofa and a hanging golden curtain pulled back to reveal a well-furnished corner of the room. Framed paintings are hung in a random arrangement on the wall; a bust sculpture of white marble or plaster sits atop the desk cabinet; and in the shadowy back corner is what appears to be a case displaying some of the miniature portraits for which Chapman gained a reputation in the first decade of the twentieth century. The deep diagonal recession of space is emphasized by the generous expanse of polished wood floor partly covered by an oriental rug. Bright but diffused light flooding the space from the upper left implies the presence of a high, slanted window or skylight of the kind favored for artist’s studios.
Chapman spent much of her career in Paris. Returning there in 1903 after several years’ hiatus in the United States, she settled into a studio at 9 rue Falguière, in the popular artists’ quarter of Montparnasse. During an earlier period in Paris Chapman had made several small images of corners of her studio, showing casual arrangements of easels, props, and paintings stacked against the wall to evoke the artist at work. This later studio scene, however, suggests rather Chapman’s professional success. At her desk, at which the artist is shown seated in a photograph made around the same time as the painting (see above), she would have managed paperwork relating to patrons and professional activities. The framed paintings and the display of miniatures seen here stand for an existing body of finished work in diverse formats. The draped curtain and pillow-strewn sofa present the studio not merely as the site of artist’s work but as a material statement of culture and tasteful refinement, a setting to be frequented and admired by prospective clients, according to the practice of many late-nineteenth-century European and American artists.
Chapman’s studio views, with their quiet arrangements of inanimate objects, testify to the importance of still life painting in her practice, which also extended to landscapes, figure studies, and portraits. In addition to full-size easel paintings and miniatures, she painted numerous small study-like works in oils, made quickly and on site. This technique was highly popular among American artists working in Paris around the turn of the twentieth century, particularly for landscape views. Chapman additionally used it for still life images and for her studio scenes. Although this image is painted on a somewhat larger canvas, it retains the sketch-like freshness and aura of unedited immediacy for which her smaller studies were prized. As she often did with such works, Chapman inscribed her name and the date of the painting by scratching through the wet oil paint with a sharp stylus or brush-end.