Conrad Wise Chapman was born in Washington D.C. in 1842. Chapman spent his first few years between Washington and New York City, until his father John Gadsby Chapman, a highly regarded artist, decided to take the family to Europe in 1848. After a brief stay in Paris and Florence, the Chapmans settled in Rome, where their father trained Conrad and his brother John Linton for careers in art. By the end of 1850, both sons were producing and selling very fine pictures of Italian peasants, landscapes, and the most popular attractions of the Eternal City.
When word of the first Civil War Battles reached Rome, Conrad ran away from home and journeyed to America to enlist in the Confederate army. Unable to reach Virginia, Chapman settled for service in a regiment in Kentucky. He saw action at Shiloh, were he suffered a serious head wound, and was transferred to Virginia in 1862. After an uneventful year spent far from fighting, Chapman and his regiment were sent farther south to take part in the defense of Charleston, South Carolina. During the months he spent in the Cradle of the Confederacy, Chapman was assigned the special duty of making pictorial records of the fortifications and novel weapons devised by the city's defenders. By the time Chapman returned to duty in the spring of 1865, Charleston and all other southern ports had fallen, and he found himself in Texas. Too proud at the war's end to face humiliation and subjugation in the defeated South, Chapman had little choice but to regard Mexico as a land of opportunity.
He and his rebel comrades reached Monterrey at the end of June 1865. By early September Chapman had completed two large landscapes, French encampment at Monterrey and View of Monterrey. From there, he wrote to his father about his decision " to remain in this country long enough to get together material for pictures in the future. Mexico is the most thoroughly picturesque country I ever was in. The mountain scenery surpasses anything I have seen before"
Penniless and dressed in rags he reached Mexico City in January 1866. There he took a job on a crew assigned to survey lands in the east of the capital that Maximilian had invited former Confederates to colonize. By the end of March a shortage of food and the threat of attacks by Juarista Guerrillas forced the surveyors to terminate their work and return to the capital. Upon returning to Mexico City, the two pictures from Monterrey were exhibited, and sold immediately to an English engineer and industrialist named W.R. Jolly. Because Jolly was preparing to return to his native Manchester, he commissioned Chapman to make a painting of his tile factory as a memento of his stay in Mexico.
Chapman had already begun making sketches in and around Mexico City that April. From the beginning, he was determined to make his view of the Valley of Mexico as comprehensive as possible. He obviously was fascinated by the sweep of the distant mountains and the huge spaces contained by them. In all these studies, Mexico City may be seen in the background at the left and Lake Texcoco in the middle ground. To the right, beyond a heard of goats, Jolly's tile factory, an almost incidental feature in the landscape, barely peering above the trees on the valley floor, lies at the far right, where it is dominated by the massive, snow-capped peaks of Mexico's famous dormant volcanoes, Popocatépetl an Ixtaccíhuatl.
Jolly's commission lead to a mural and provided Chapman the means to return to Italy at the end of the summer. It also resulted in the production of several other exquisite preparatory studies and a host of later versions that the artist continued to produce until the end of his life. From his mature period in Mexico we get Valle de Mexico/desde la Hacienda de Los Olivares de los Padres Hecho para el Senor Don Alejandro Najera por CW Chapman Mexico 1894.This picture is a later version, in smaller format, of the painting of the Valley of Mexico, with the tile factory that Mr. Jolly had commissioned Chapman to paint in 1865.
We are grateful to the Timken Museum of Art for their assistance in cataloguing the present painting and permission for including excerpts from Ben Bassham's essay: "Conrad Wise Chapman and the Mexican Landscape", published as part of their exhibition catalogue.
Proceeds from the sale of this painting will go towards the acquisition fund of the Timken Museum of Art.