Ralph Earl


painted many of the most enduring images of American people and places during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. He has become known as the initiator of the“Connecticut school” of portrait painting, and his style has come to be associated with New England portraiture. Raised in Worcester County, Massachusetts, in 1774,he turned his back on his agrarian roots and established himself as a fledgling artist in New Haven, Connecticut. He painted portraits of a number of leadingRevolutionary War patriots in New Haven, including his early masterwork,
Roger Sherman
(1775–1776). Earl also collaborated with his New Haven colleague, theengraver Amos Doolittle, to produce sketches for four engravings of the 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord, which would become among the first historical printsto be made in America. Despite his seemingly patriotic endeavors, Earl declared himself a Loyalist, and in 1778, with the assistance of a young British officer, Capt.John Money, he fled to England.During his eight-year stay in England, Earl divided his time between Norwich, in the province of East Anglia, and London. His early years were spent painting portraits for the Norwich country gentlefolk in a provincial style. By 1783, Earl was part of the entourage of American artists in the London studio of Benjamin West,where he absorbed the lessons of the British portraiture tradition. Many of Earl’s highly accomplished London and Windsor portraits were shown at Royal Academyexhibitions.In 1785 Earl returned to America and quickly established a residence in New York City. His ambitious start came to a sudden halt, however, when he was confinedto a New York debtors’ prison, where he remained from September 1786 until January 1788. Earl engaged the support of the Society for the Relief of DistressedDebtors, composed of the most illustrious of New York families, who allowed Earl to paint their portraits while he was still in prison. By painting such elegant works as
Mrs.Alexander Hamilton
(1787) as well as a series of portraits of heroes of the American Revolution, he earned enough money to obtain his release.Earl’s release from debtors’ prison marked a turning point in his career. With the help of his court-appointed guardian, Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell, who convincedthe artist to follow him to Connecticut, Earl regained stability. He modified his artistic ambitions to ply his trade as an itinerant artist in the agriculture-based society of Connecticut. He found his greatest success in this region, where, with Cogswell’s impressive connections, he painted for ten years.Earl furthered the formation of a national imagery by portraying a segment of American society that had never before received the attention of a trained and highlygifted artist. More than any other artist of his time, Earl was qualified to create an appropriate style to satisfy the aesthetic sensibilities of his Connecticut subjects. Earldeliberately rejected British aristocratic imagery, cleverly tempering his academic style to suit his subjects’ modest pretensions. He began to paint realistic portrayals of his subjects’ likenesses and surroundings, including their attire, locally made furnishings, newly built houses, regional landscape features that celebrated land ownership,and emblems of the new nation. In addition, he adopted a more simplified technique, using broad brushstrokes and favoring primary colors—a portrait style popular with citizens of the new republic.Earl was also one of the few American artists in the 1790s to receive commissions for landscape paintings, an art form that was still scarce in his native country. In1798 he moved north to Vermont and Massachusetts in search of new commissions. The next year, Earl became the first American artist to travel to Niagara Falls,where he sketched the “stupendous cataract.” After this arduous journey, Earl returned to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he produced a panorama of the falls that measured approximately fifteen by thirty feet. With great fanfare, the panorama was first placed on public view in Northampton, and subsequently in New Haven, Connecticut, as well as in Philadelphia, before finally traveling on toLondon.At the end of his life, Earl returned to his native town of Leicester, Massachusetts, where he painted a final panoramic landscape of the region, titled
Looking East rom Denny Hill (1800).
In 1801 Earl traveled to Bolton, Connecticut, where he died at the home of Dr. Samuel Cooley. The cause of death was listed as“intemperance.” The artist’s problems with alcoholism, the rigors of his life of continual travel, and his separation from his family all contributed to his early death at theage of fifty.
See also
Painting, American Folk
Kornhauser, Elizabeth Mankin. “‘By Your Inimitable Hand’: Elijah Boardman’s Patronage of Ralph Earl.”
The American Art Journal,
vol. 23 (1991): 4–20. ——.“Ralph Earl As an Itinerant Artist: Pattern of Patronage,” in
Itinerancy in New England and New York: Annual Proceedings of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folk Life.
Boston, 1986.Kornhauser, Elizabeth Mankin, et al.
Ralph Earl: The Face of the Young Republic.
New Haven, Conn., 1991.Sawitsky, William, and Susan Sawitsky. “Two Letters from Ralph Earl, with Notes on His English Period.”
Worcester Art Museum Annual,
vol. 8 (1960): 8–41.