The following is a Woman of Courage profile written and produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.
Minerva Chapman was an accomplished painter whose works, many of which were done painstakingly in miniature on tiny pieces of canvas and ivory, were never exhibited in her native northern New York during her lifetime. The first North Country public showing of her work took place in the spring of 1997 in Potsdam, NY at the Roland Gibson Gallery on the SUNY Potsdam College campus.
She was born in 1858 in Sand Bank, NY, a small village on the banks of the Salmon River in northern Oswego County, which was later renamed Altmar. She was the oldest of four children born to James Lincoln Chapman and Agnes Barnes. Her father owned a successful tannery business there in the 1850s. The family moved to Chicago shortly after her birth, where her father continued in the tannery industry. He later founded the First National Bank of Chicago.
Her family's wealth insured her financial independence throughout her life. In 1875 she began study at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her art studies continued over the next 20 years. In 1886 she left to travel throughout Europe, where she eventually settled in Paris. She studied art at various institutes and academics in Europe, including ones in Paris and Munich. Her instructors included Annie Shaw, John Vanderpoll, J. P. Laurens, Robert Fluery, Charles Lasar and Bouguereau.
A prolific painter, Minerva Chapman's work embraced a variety of mediums over the 50 years of her professional life. Her work in minatures, which brought her much critical acclaim, was begun about the turn of the century. According to her own count, she did 181 miniatures, some in oil on pieces of canvas no larger than 4x5 inches. She was also respected for her delicate watercolor portraits done on slices of ivory. This was an art form popular during the 17th and 18th centuries.
In addition to her watercolors, she produced still lifes and landscapes, portraits, oil sketches on canvas, and drawings in charcoal and chalk. Many of her notebooks and sketchbooks survive, showing her evolution as an artist during the course of her studies and professional work.
In 1906 she was one of the first American women elected a member of France’s Salon of the Societe Nationale des Beaux Atrs. Other women artists so honored included the internationally know Mary Cassatt and Elizabeth Nourse. Eventually she became the first woman president of the International Art Union. During her 50-year career, hundreds of her paintings were shown at exhibitions in both American and Europe, winning numerous awards and Gold Medals. She was a founding member of the miniature painting society.
In 1925, after nearly 30 years of life in Paris, Minerva Chapman moved permanently to Palo Alto, California at the age of 67. She died there on June 14, 1947 at 88. Her brother, in charge of her estate, shipped all the remaining miniatures to a niece, and sold off the larger oil paintings. Many of these works went to framers who were more interested in the frames than the paintings. Chapman’s family began a 10 year campaign to recover her work. They bought back over 1,000 pieces, but no one knows how many original Chapman works are still unaccounted for. She rarely signed her works, further complicating the recovery work.
Most of her paintings are still owned by the family, although a few pieces have been sold to galleries over the years, including the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. The family began showing her works in 1975, including retrospective exhibitions at the National Museum for Women in the Arts. In addition, Minerva Chapman’s works have been shown several times in recent years. The family loaned parts of the collection to Mount Holyoke College and the National Museum of Women in the Arts for exhibits about 10 years ago. The family’s generosity made possible the two Minerva Chapman shows held in the North Country in 1997 at Potsdam College and the Jefferson County Historical Society.
Minerva Chapman, although not widely known today, was a well-respected artist in her own time. While commercial success was of no interest to her, her dedication to training her ability and perfecting her craft produced an extensive body of work which is as fresh and exciting today as it was when first created.
To see some examples of Minerva Chapman's work, visit the John Pence Gallery.
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