JOHN G. CHAPLIN
Born November 30, 1828, in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, John G. Chaplin was the oldest child of Levi and Sophia Norris Chaplin. From his father, John learned the trade of barbering, a traditional occupation of middle-class free blacks of that era. But simultaneously, throughout his lifetime, John Chaplin pursued a career as a painter of portraits and Biblical and literary tableaux.
He is reported to have been sent as a young man to study with Robert Douglas, Jr., in Philadelphia and also to have studied at the art academy in Dusseldorf, Germany. His skill as a copyist of famous works of art suggests that he did have formal training. Surviving works of this type include David's Napoleon, John Obie's portrait of Robert Southey, Willard's Spirit of '76, and Emile Bayard's An Affair of Honor.
His paintings are seldom signed and because of their variety are difficult to attribute unless provenance can be established through oral tradition or through newspaper accounts that are contemporary with his painting activity. Chaplin painted on small wooden plates, on canvas and artist's board, and on doors and walls. In size, his extant works range from the little plates to a canvas 69 x 57 inches. He painted in a variety of styles: obviously, his copy work is in the styles of the artists he copied, and his portraits, for whatever reason, vary significantly, some being hard-edged and lifeless, while others are full of detail and quite lively.
Many Chaplin paintings documented by 19th century news articles have either been lost or their provenance is no longer remembered and, thus, his name is no longer associated with them. This group includes The Death of Hannibal, King Lear in the Storm, and The Dream of Nebuchadnezzar, as well as portraits of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Haitian heroes Toussaint L'Ouverture and Fabre Geffrard.
The majority of Chaplin's surviving works are privately owned, but several are in the fine arts collections of Juniata College and the Huntingdon County Historical Society, both in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.
In 1895, Chaplin moved from his life-long home in Huntingdon to live near two of his daughters in Youngstown, Ohio. He was struck by a train and died in that city on January 5, 1907.
Written and submitted by Nancy S. Shedd