Alonzo Chappel was a 19th century artist whose principal activity consisted of making small history paintings and portraits of historical figures that were then turned into engravings and used as illustrations in books such as Jesse Ames Spencer's "History of the United States" and Evert A. Duyckinck's "Lives and Portraits of the Presidents of the United States."
By and large, the books that Chappel illustrated have long been forgotten, and so was he not long after he died at the age of 59 in 1887. But some of his works have lived on, turning up in other books so that they are familiar to us even today. I don't know where I have seen his "Washington's First Interview With Mrs. Custis, Afterwards Mrs. Washington" (1857), but I recognized it instantly in the Maryland Historical Society's current exhibit of Chappel's work, being circulated from the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa.
This show of about 90 of Chappel's works is at times fun, both for the recognition factor of some of the works and for the amusingly melodramatic character of paintings such as "Capture Fort Ticonderoga" (1858) and "Massacre of Wyoming" (1858). But it's an awfully weak show.
As art, the work just isn't very good. Chappel's work was serviceable to be used as illustrations, but it doesn't excite much interest today. And as history it is highly suspect.
Chappel relied on historical sources for his knowledge of battles and other historical events, but essentially he had to imagine the scene, so what we have in these works is really in large part made up.
Of course that's true of a lot of history paintings by Chappel's betters, but if the work in question is good art then there's an excuse for showing it for that reason. When there's no strong art reason and no strong history reason, then what is the reason?
As if to acknowledge the weakness of the show, the Historical Society has added its own painting by Charles Willson Peale of "Washington and His Generals After the British Surrender at Yorktown," which is not only better than Chappel's paintings but -- as the historical society's label tellingly points out -- unlike Chappel's imagined works, the Peale is an eyewitness account.
'The Portraits and History Paintings of Alonzo Chappel'
Where: The Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.
When: Tuesdays to Fridays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Aug. 15.
L Admission: $3.50 for adults, $2.50 for seniors and students.
Call: (410) 685-3750.