Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Despite bigamy, alcoholism, & bad debts, Ralph Earl paints some fairly spectacular portraits of Early American Women

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Ralph Earl was born on a prosperous farm in Massachusettes on May 11, 1751. Ralph was named after his father, who as a large landowner was active in community affairs & an officer in the local militia.

1785 Ralph Earl (1751-1801) Martha Spear (Mrs. John Johnston)

Ralph & his brother James(1761–1796), who was 10 years younger, both became artists, as did his son Ralph E. W. Earl(c 1785-8 – 1838).

1787 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Mrs. James Duane.

Ralph Earl was traveling as an itinerant artist in 1774, when he returned home to marry his 2nd cousin Sarah Gates, with whom he eventually produced 3 children.

1787 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Mrs. Alexander Hamilton.

Earl went back on the road soon after the wedding ceremony; and he & his wife lived apart much of the time, as he traveled from town to town painting. She delivered their first child at the home of her parents a few months after their marriage.

1789 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Clarissa Seymour (Mrs. Truman Marsh).

While trying to establish himself in New Haven, he met painter Henry Pelham, the half brother of John Singleton Copley. When visiting Pelham in Boston in March 1775, Earl admired the works Copley had left behind when he moved to England.

1789 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Esther Boardman.

Years later in the Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, Massachusettes, March 5, 1800, Earl would claim that he had "received the last and finishing strokes of his art from the hands of the immortal Reynolds, West and Copley." As of now, no evidence has been found that he studied under either Joshua Reynolds or John Singleton Copley.

1789 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Mariann Wolcott.

As the war neared, Earl refused to serve in the local militia & narrowly escaped prison for refusing to pay taxes to support the American Revolution.

1790 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Sarah Tucker.

Earl’s wife joined him in New Haven in November, 1776, and they lived there until May, 1777. This 6 month period, Sarah attested after Earl's death, "was all the time we kept house together."

1790 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Mary Smith Booth.

In April, 1777, Earl & several others were accused in the Connecticut Journal as being "friends of George the third and would not take up arms against him or his troops." Their behavior was called a "glaring instance of treason."

1790 Ralph Earl (1791-1801). Jerusha Benedict (Ives).

Earl escaped to England disguised as a servant of English quartermaster general, John Money. His wife Sarah stayed behind with their three children & began living with her parents again.

1794 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Huldah Bradley.

From 1778 to 1785, Earl painted throughout the English provinces, studied with Pennsylvania expatriate artist Benjamin West, and exhibited at the Royal Academy, although he never became a member.

1796 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Apphia Ruggles (Mrs. Jared Lane).

He wrote to Englishman Dr. Joseph Trumbull, a Worcester County apothecary whose portrait he had painted, "...the picture Which I have began and finished scince You was heir is the best that eaver I painted, I intend to offer it to Copely to coppey for his improvement." Like John Singleton Copley, Ralph Earl did not lack in ego or the clever knack for self-promotion.

1798 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Mary Schenck (Mrs. Elijah Dewey).

After the dust of war settled, Earl returned to Boston in 1785, with a new English wife, Ann Whiteside (1762–1826), who would bear him a son and a daughter within the next 3 years. His arrival in Boston was announced in both the Salem Massachusettes Gazette on May 24, 1785, and in Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy, Or, the Worcester Gazette on May 26, 1785. This may have surprised his American wife Sarah, the mother of his first 3 children, from whom he was not divorced.

1793 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Ann Whiteside (1762-1826) (Mrs. Ralph Earl)

For the next 6 months he traveled with his new wife to New York by way of Providence and New London, where he tarried to paint a few portraits.

1794 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Lucy Bradley.

When he arrived in New York in October, he advertised in the Independent Journal or the General Advertiser, New York, November 2, 1785, that he intended to paint for clients "in this City, where a specimen of his abilities may be seen on calling at Mr. Rivington’s, No. 1, Queen-Street."

1794 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Mrs Charles Jeffery Smith.

Within the year, Earl became involved in several lawsuits that sent him to debtors’ lockup in the New York City Jail from September, 1786, to January, 1788, where he was encouraged to continue painting. During this period his wife and small children had to fend for themselves, while Earl painted portraits of several notable New Yorkers including Mrs. Alexander Hamilton. His portrait commissions were held in a trust until his release.

1795 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Sarah Perry (Mrs. David Hubbell).

When he was freed, he continued painting portraits of patrons in New York as well as Fairfield, Greenfield Hill, Hartford, Litchfield, Middletown, New Milford, Norwich, & Stamford, Connecticut. He painted his subjects in familiar local landscapes or surrounded by possessions and wares that were part of their everday lives. Like Copley, he could concoct fashionable costumes for the status-conscious gentry and comfortably portray the more conservative styles of his rural clients.

1798 Ralph Earl(1751-1801). Elizabeth Eliot (Mrs. Gershom Burr).

His paintings became well known. The Litchfield Weekly Monitor of June 21, 1790, carried a notice (which Earl may have written and paid for) reprinted in the Columbian Centinel in Boston on June 30, 1790.

Ralph Earl (1751-1801) Mrs. Ebenezer Porter (Lucy Patty Pierce Merwin)

To the Patrons of the Fine Arts
The Portrait Paintings by Mr. RALPH EARL, in this town, do him honor as an American, and as an artist of great taste and ingenuity—Connoisseurs in this truly noble and refined art, pronounce several of his performances the most masterly every exhibited in the United States. Mr. Earl was pupil to the celebrated West; and acquired great reputation in London by his Pencil;—and possessing a lively imagination, and pure talent in the principles of his profession, we cannot doubt, and hope, that in this age of refinement, the "well-born and well-bred" of his countrymen will patronize him in the road to Fame.


1796 Ralph Earl (1751-1801) Mrs. Sherman Boardman (Sarah Bostwick)

After his stint in debtor's prison, Ralph Earl spent 3 years painting commissions in New York City and 13 years working throughout Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

1792 Ralph Earl (1751-1801) Mrs. Richard Alsop

The surviving account books of his client Jared Lane of New Milford, indicate that at least some patrons paid for Earl's supplies, room, and board, as well as for the portraits themselves.

1792 Ralph Earl (1751-1801) Mrs Joseph Wright

In 1798, either Earl or his 2nd wife decided stop moving the family from town to town in search of painting prospects. She and their daughter settled permanently in Troy, New York, as he continued to travel throughout New England painting. Earl's son Ralph E. W. stayed with his father to learn the art.

1791 Ralph Earl (1751-1801) Mrs John Watson

Unlike earlier 18th century colonial painters, Earl was receiving commissions to paint both portraits & landscapes in the new Republic. People might chose to have their portraits painted at some milestone in their lives such as a marriage or the birth of a child. Others clients might chose to have a painting of their new house in town or set in a broad landscape perspective or of their shop or of the gardens surrounding their home.

1790 Ralph Earl (1751-1801) Mrs Nathaniel Taylor

In 1800, accounts of Earl's goal to paint a nearly 30' long landscape panorama of Niagara Falls with Hezekiah Hutchens, an amateur artist, and Jacob Wicker, an ornamental painter, appeared in newspapers in Northampton, Worcester, Litchfield, Baltimore, and far away Charleston, South Carolina. They accomplished the physically challenging adventure, and the huge landscape painting generated publicity for Earl.

1792 Ralph Earl (1751-1801) Oliver & Abigail Wolcott Ellsworth

But soon after, at age 50, Ralph Earl died in Bolton, Connecticut, on August 16, 1801. In a diary which still exists at the Connecticul Historical Society, a local minister The Reverend Mr. George Colton recorded the cause of Earl's death as "intemperance."
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