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Francis Chapin

Born: 1899, Bristolville, Ohio, United States of America
Died: 1965, Chicago, Illinois, United States of America

City Scene
c. 1940

Watercolor and fiber-tipped orange pen on ivory wove watercolor paper
Sheet: 15 5/8 x 22 3/4 in. (39.7 x 57.8 cm)
Mat: 22 1/8 x 29 1/8 in. (56.2 x 74.0 cm)
Terra Foundation for American Art, Gift of Bridges Collection, C1994.23
Signed: Lower right: F. Chapin
Artist Name: []


City Scene pictures an urban vista as a jumble of decaying structures crowded together under a lowering gray sky. Except for the modest frame house at the left, most of the buildings are seen from the back, exposing the alley-side face of an aging city neighborhood cluttered with utilitarian fences, chimneys, poles, and electrical wires. Bright color applied in broad, rapidly applied sweeps of thin watercolor wash enlivens the image. Chapin was known for setting up his easel on sidewalks and in alleys, and he almost certainly painted this scene on-site, according to his usual practice. The ghost-like figure almost invisible on the left is undoubtedly the self-portrait the six-foot-six-inch-tall Chapin often included in his urban views.

In the background of City Scene the narrow dome topped by a crucifix has been identified as the spire of St. Michael's Church, near the intersection of North Avenue and Sedgwick Street in the so-called Old Town quarter on Chicago's North Side; the artist's home was close by, on Menomenee Street. A prolific watercolor painter, Chapin repeatedly painted outdoors in his neighborhood, which during the 1930s and 40s attracted many artists by its low rents and proximity to downtown. In those decades the area was economically depressed, and many of its typical late-nineteenth-century houses and storefronts were left unmolested if unmaintained. For most urbanites, these remnants of Chicago's past, relics of a more prosperous era, now symbolized the city's decline and its cultural provincialism. In the spirit of the so-called regionalist movement of the 1930s, however, Chapin and other artistic contemporaries, such as Reginald Marsh in his watercolor Chicago (TF 1998.4), eagerly embraced the landscape of obsolete architectural styles and down-at-heels commercial and industrial structures. Artists not only portrayed the seemingly abandoned streetscapes of decaying city neighborhoods and small towns but often sought their essence in back-street and alley-side views. Chapin's City Scene typifies this approach: using a spontaneous painting technique that mimics the rough surfaces both of the buildings themselves and the gritty atmosphere of the scene, he imparts the unglamorous reality of urban decay with affection for the familiar, the well-worn, and the unmistakably American.

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The artist
Mr. Powell Bridges, Chicago, Illinois
Terra Foundation for the Arts Collection, Chicago, Illinois, 1994 (gift of Bridges Collection)

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Exhibition History

Figures and Forms: Selections from the Terra Foundation for the Arts, Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois (organizer). Venue: Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois, May 9–July 9, 2000.

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