Painter, printmaker, and illustrator. Known especially for historical and literary subjects, he also produced genre scenes, landscapes, and portraits. In addition, he wrote the most important drawing manual of the mid-nineteenth century and executed one of eight huge murals that decorate the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Born in Alexandria, Virginia, the young Chapman received advice and encouragement from Charles Bird King and others in the nearby Washington, D.C., area. In 1827 Chapman began working independently in Winchester, Virginia. Following a short period in Philadelphia, in 1828 he left for Europe, where he spent most of three years in Italy. After subsequently working itinerantly as a portraitist in Virginia and Washington, D.C., he moved to New York in 1834. There he soon began to draw for magazines and gift books and in 1836 secured a commission for the Capitol's Baptism of Pocahontas at Jamestown, Virginia, 1613, installed in 1840. During the following years, he prepared the designs for most of the 1,400 wood engravings in Harper's Illuminated Bible (1846) and published The American Drawing-Book (1847), which remained popular as a school text and amateur reference for decades. In 1848 he departed for Europe. After some months in London and a year in Paris, he settled in 1850 in Rome, remaining for more than three decades. There he produced landscape paintings and hand-colored etchings, mostly depicting the Roman Campagna, with its classical ruins and colorful peasant inhabitants. These relaxed and luminous works, studded with closely observed incidental detail, contrast with his earlier figural narratives, which often appear academic and theatrical. After moving to Brooklyn in 1884, he painted little before his death in New Brighton, on Staten Island.
With their father's instruction and encouragement, Chapman's two sons entered his profession. Both were born in Washington and accompanied their parents to Europe in 1848. Landscapist John Linton Chapman (1839–1905) remained to paint Italian scenes until 1878. Subsequently, he lived in New York or its environs and died in Westchester County. Conrad Wise Chapman (1842–1910) enjoyed a somewhat more eventful and distinctive career. When the Civil War erupted, he sailed to America to fight for the Confederacy and, as it turned out, produce the finest series of paintings to emanate from the Southern point of view. He served in several engagements, was wounded at Shiloh, and in 1863 and 1864 while stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, made studies of its fortifications. From these, he completed twenty-six finished paintings in Rome during an 1864 furlough. When the war concluded, he spent fifteen months in Mexico, becoming the first American painter of any significance to paint its landscape. In 1866 he returned to Rome but went to Paris in 1869 for additional training. He remained there most of the time until 1883, when he moved to Mexico City. After 1889 he lived at various times in Paris, Virginia, New York, and Mexico City before settling in 1909 in Hampton, Virginia, where he died. Despite promising starts, in later years neither brother's career continued to flourish.