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James Chapin Watercolor Gallery: Introduction

As a young scientific explorer of the Congo Basin at the turn of the century, James P. Chapin was also a remarkably talented artist. To accompany his detailed descriptions of the fresh specimens he collected in the field, he skillfully rendered accurate representations of their individual characteristic colors and dimensions through his fine watercolors and colored pencil drawings. Some of these illustrations were later published in scientific papers describing specimens obtained by the Congo Expedition in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. An AMNH Bulletin article on the fresh-water fishes of the Congo describes the significance of his work:

Painted in the field from living, freshly-captured specimens, their great value consists in their accuracy. In most cases the changes of color in dead fish are so rapid and so radical that often there is not even an indication left of their original beauty. After a long immersion in the preserving fluid some appear completely bleached. To give an idea of some of the difficulties an artist has to contend with, we might point out that in the forest regions the moisture was sometimes so great that during the process of painting, these sketches had to be held over the fire, to dry one shade after the other so that the different colors would not flow together. It is interesting to note that they are the first records of this kind for fishes from the Congo Basin (Nicholas).

In addition to fishes, his subjects include lizards, toads, snakes, frogs, bats and most foretelling, birds, his true passion as he was eventually to become the Curator of Ornithology of the American Museum of Natural History. Despite the challenging working conditions of the Congo, James P. Chapin created not only beautiful works of art but invaluable contributions to the wealth of knowledge in the AMNH Congo collection.

Nicholas, John Treadwell and Ludlow Griscom, Fresh-Water Fishes of the Congo Basin Obtained by the American Museum Congo Expedition, 1909-1915. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 37, art.25, p.653, 1917.