James Chapin was born in West Orange, New York. He was a pupil of the Antwerp Royal Academy and the Society of Independent Painters of America. Not American but post-Impressionist French were the canvases of agile, sensitive James Chapin up to 1924. Cezanne was his idol. That year he left Greenwich Village, took a walking trip in the hills of northern New Jersey. There he found a two-room cabin, decided it would be a quiet place to paint. He rented it for $4 a month from the Marvins, a tight-fisted, hard-working farm family.
Soon Chapin got so absorbed in spare, taciturn, unschooled Emmet, George and Ella Marvin that he stopped painting cubist arrangements of rocks, scaffolding and apple trees, became instead a limner of the United States scene long before it became the popular thing. For five years he sketched them plowing, planting potatoes, etc. meanwhile helping them with the farm chores, which helped gain their confidence in him. The paintings that resulted are strong, bleak and solid as the Jersey hills.
In 1929 he returned to Manhattan, where he painted many other phases of life in the United States. He also devoted one day a week to teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In the summer he was associated with Millard Sheets in teaching in the Fine Arts Department of Claremont College in California. He died in 1975.
Chapin executed numerous portraits of well-known public figures; at least five of his portraits were commissioned by TIME as cover art. His works have been acquired by many private collectors and for the permanent collections of the many institutions such as The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (where he taught portraiture), The Phillips Collection, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Newark Museum, Amherst College, The Dallas Museum of Art, Texas; The Asheville Art Museum, The Currier Gallery of Art, The Five College Museums Collections, The Harvard Art Museums, and The Indianapolis Museum of Art. Chapin had a significant impact on the early history of Regionalists Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood with his 1920's series of portraits of the Marvin family.
Chapin met Mary Fischer while teaching in California in the late 1930s. He was the father of jazz musician Jim Chapin and grandfather of folk singer Harry Chapin.
Largely due to his opposition to United States foreign policy in Southeast Asia, he moved to Canada in 1969, and died in Toronto in 1975.