The year was 1928. It was the end of the first decade after a devastating world war. Like the rest of the 20s, it roared. The United States elected its 31st president, Herbert Hoover. Along with 62 other countries, it also renounced future wars. The "final triumph over poverty," as it was phrased, was supposedly in sight. The market soared and just as giddily dipped. Amelia Earhart flew the Atlantic. Depending on their income, people drove Fords, Chevrolets, Plymouths, DeSotos, Chryslers, Stutzes, Auburns, or nothing at all. They danced the Charleston. Also in 1928, the first antibiotic was announced. In the realm of literature, the Oxford English Dictionary finally appeared, as did The House at Pooh Corner and Stephen Vincent Benét's John Brown's Body. Harlem was in the midst of its vibrant Renaissance. George White's Scandals was at the Apollo. Eugene O'Neill was on Broadway and Mickey Mouse was born in Hollywood. Amos n' Andy debuted on Chicago radio. Kids began eating Peter Pan peanut butter and babies were weaned to Gerber's; adults began eating Kraft cheese; only Popeye ate spinach, and no one at all ate broccoli. The country stood less than a year from a major economic depression and little more than a decade from a world war even more devastating than the first. But no one knew that then. This was the world in which American Realist painter James Chapin (1887-1975) began his career. Born in West Orange, NJ, he left high school at age 16 to take night classes in art at Cooper Union in New York. Days, he worked in a bank. Later, he studied at the Art Students League in New York and at the Royal Academy of Antwerp, Belgium. Early in his career he worked as a commercial artist, continuing his serious painting at night. Finally, in 1922 he decided to commit himself to a full-time painting career. He retreated to a $4-a-month log cabin in northern New Jersey and stayed there for 5 years. The retreat proved to be decisive. Chapin's style evolved from a "Post-Impressionist-Cézannesque" imitation to a solid "American Scene" art that would establish him as a Regionalist painter. Like Grant Wood (who greatly admired his work) and Thomas Hart Benton in the Midwest, Chapin turned to the local people of the eastern United States for his subject matter: urban dwellers, rural farmers, boxers, baseball players, even physicians, and war wounded. In his later years he turned to children engaged in a variety of activities. The winner of several major prizes, he taught for a time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In 1969, at age 82, Chapin left the East Coast and with his family moved to Canada to protest the war in Vietnam. He died there in 1975. The 20s was also the world in which Ruby Green would commence her career. A graduate of the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, she was a contralto and did concert work, radio, and later, television performances. She was part of the cast of the Manhattan revival of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess during the 1950s and toured with both the national and international companies of the opera during the 1960s. Ruby Green's and James Chapin's paths first crossed in 1928 when he saw her singing with the Hall Johnson Negro Chorus in Manhattan. The eloquent Ruby Green Singing (cover ) was the result. Chapin showed the work at his first major exhibit in New York a year later, in 1929. Initially entitled by him The Negro Spiritual, the work has remained a perennial favorite for more than 70 years. Ruby Green Singing has that rare, often intangible quality that successful portraits have: the power to cause the viewer to forget that the work is merely a painting, that it is only a little pigment on a strip of cloth. In Chapin's work, the viewer feels almost immediately that this is not merely a painting, but Ruby herself; that the viewer knows Ruby and has known her for a long time, much as one knows a close friend or a member of one's family. Chapin accomplishes this with the warm tones of the simple reddish dress against an even more simple golden background. More importantly, Chapin allows Ruby to tell the story: her upturned head, her straight, proud body, her clasped hands, her slightly parted lips, her eyes fixed on something beyond our vision, but something that we know she in her turn will describe for us. Ruby is not merely singing: she is praying, speaking to the world from the wordless silence of the human spirit. It is this ability of Chapin, perhaps, to portray the genuinely spiritual that has kept this portrait a favorite of all who have seen it. James Chapin(1887-1975),Ruby Green Singing, 1928, American. Oil on canvas. 96.5 × 76.2 cm. Courtesy of the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Fla; bequest of R. H. Norton.
– American Medical Association
Published: Mar 21, 2001