JAMES CHAPIN, 66, is among the nation's best portraitists, yet his art is seldom shown and his name seldom heard.

One reason is that Chapin is at his best painting not notables, but the unknowns who happen to move him. His obvious purpose is to make each of his subjects more than a mere personality on canvas; he tries to express ways and qualities of life. For example, Chapin's Ruby Green Singing (opposite) tries to portray "the beauty of Negro music and the Negro people." The grandeur of this idea belies the surface simplicity of the painting. Whether or not the picture...

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