John G. Chaplin was the oldest son of Huntingdon,
Pennsylvania barber Levi and his wife Sophia. "The Chaplins have been
In Huntingdon as far back as 1810," notes family historian Charles Robinson,
who believes the family descended from slaves brought into Pennsylvania
about 1785 by Maryland slaveholder Joseph Norris. Pennsylvania law
would not allow slaves to be brought into the commonwealth from neighboring
states, so the ancestors of Levi and Sophia would have been manumitted,
perhaps after a period of indenture, and ultimately freed. At some
point the family took up barbering, one of only a few professions open to
African Americans at that time. Levi had a shop in Huntingdon as early
as 1843, called the "Temple of Fashion." Most of his sons, including
his eldest, John, followed him into the family business.
however, had an artistic talent that led him from Huntingdon to
Philadelphia, where he studied under an accomplished African American
artist, Robert Douglass, Jr. (1809-1887), who in turn had studied under
Thomas Sully. Douglass, cousin to abolitionist Frederick Douglass, had
taken an interest in helping promote talented African American artists.
In addition to Chaplin, Douglass also taught David Bustill Bowser, later
notable for his portraits of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. Through
the efforts and backing of Robert Douglass, Jr., John Chaplin was able to
travel to the West Indies to continue his study of art, and eventually he
made it to Dusseldorf.
Once back in America, John soon returned to
Huntingdon, married Hannah Penlow in 1852 and settled into a life less
glamorous. He resumed the family occupation of barbering, and by 1860
had a household filled with small children and other dependents, including
his aged mother-in-law. These responsibilities kept him busy in the
barber shop, but he still found time to produce numerous paintings that
established his reputation as a serious artist.
Local newspapers reported his artistic
successes: his large oil painting "The Death of Hannibal" was described as
superb, and garnered a cash prize of three dollars at the 1856 Huntingdon
Fair. He delved into portraiture and classical subjects, continually
winning acclaim. His artistic fame began to spread throughout the
state, and he was cited by T. Morris Chester, in a speech to the
Philadelphia Library Company in 1862, as an example of African American
artistic merit, to replace paintings done by white artists, of white
subjects, that decorated the walls of many homes.
John G. Chaplin became involved with the
political spectrum, serving as president of the Huntingdon chapter of the
Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League. He represented Huntingdon at
League events in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, and reviewed returning U.S.
Colored Troops at Harrisburg in November 1865, sharing the stage with such
African American notables as William Howard Day, Stephen Smith, T. Morris
Chester, O.L.C.Hughes, Thomas Dorsey, Joseph Pople, Octavius Catto, Jacob C.
White, John Peck, George Vashon (his cousin), Joseph Bustill, and many
others. Chaplin's involvement with the Pennsylvania Equal Rights
League was a natural fit, as his interest in politics and activism was not
doubt strengthened by his association with Douglass in Philadelphia.
His daughter Florence would later marry the son of the league's founder and
first president, William Nesbit.1
After the war Chaplin continued his work with
classical subjects, painting large oils such as "The Dream of
Nebuchadnezzar," and depicting well known scenes from literature such as
"Macbeth Frightened by Banquos' Ghost," and "The Casket Choosing Scene from
The Merchant of Venice." He also exhibited at the 1876 Centennial
Exhibition in Philadelphia. At this time Chaplin was also painting
many portraits, and probably derived a good extra income from them, while
still practicing barbering. He became a very well known figure around
Huntingdon, as famous for his worldliness and elan as for his artistic
skills. Local news articles referred to him as "the Professor," and
"John DeChapalili." Chaplin played this role to the hilt, dressing the
part of a stylish gentleman and regaling his customers with stories--many
obviously false--of his exploits and heritage.
Chaplin continued to receive numerous
commissions for paintings and portraits into the 1890's, and continued to
paint large canvas portraits and scenes, even as he began to suffer the
affects of old age. In 1895 he and his wife Hannah moved to
Youngstown, Ohio to live with a daughter and son-in-law. His obituary
noted that he continued to paint to the day of his death, despite failing
eyesight. On the day he died he was on his way to the barber shop of Samuel
Stewart. Whether he was going to Stewarts to pass the afternoon in pleasant
conversation with a fellow barber, or to visit his painting, "The Duel,"
which hung in Stewart's shop, is lost to history. On his way, while
walking along the tracks of the Pennsylvania, John G. Chaplin was struck and
killed by a passing train.
1. Harrisburg historian
Calobe Jackson, Jr., notes that William Nesbit debated Thomas Morris Chester
on the subject of Liberia at a Harrisburg church in 1857.
Click here for Mr. Jackson's letter.
Charles Anderson Robinson, email correspondence
to the Afrolumens Project, 20, 22, 24, 30 January
Nancy Shedd, "Program on John G. Chaplin for the Huntingdon Historical
Society, May 1, 1984," typescript, n.p.
"Another County Equal Rights League," The Christian Recorder, 18
Thomas Morris Chester, "Negro Self-Respect and Pride of Race," Speech
delivered before the Philadelphia Library Company, December 9, 1862.
Obituary of John G. Chaplin, Youngstown Vindicator, 6 January 1907.
Obituary of John G. Chaplin, Youngstown Telegram, 7 January 1907.
1860 U.S. Census, Huntingdon Borough, Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, p.
Click here for the
news article about John G. Chaplin's death, 1907.