Ralph Earl

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Portrait of Roger Sherman, 1775/77

Ralph Earl (born May 11, 1751 in Shrewsbury , Province of Massachusetts Bay , † August 16, 1801 in Bolton , Connecticut ) was an American painter who mainly devoted himself to portraiture , but also created some landscape and history paintings .


The future artist was the eldest of the four Earl siblings, who included the future painter James Earl (1761–1796). The two-story house of their parents Ralph and Phebe Whittemore Earl (also written Earll and Earle ), Famer in Leicester, now part of Paxton (Massachusetts) , has been preserved to this day.

Ralph Earl acquired his artistic skills as an autodidact . The presence of a portrait painter named John Earll in New Haven, Connecticut - where he intended to settle - is documented by newspaper advertisements from July 1774. It is not clear whether there was a relationship with the latter. In August of the same year Earl married his cousin Sarah Gates in Leicester, but left her with their in-laws with their daughter Phebe, who was born a few months after the marriage, when there is evidence that he established himself in New Haven, where the portrait of Roger Sherman (1775/76 ) originated. In 1775 he visited the sites of the briefly earlier battles of Lexington and Concord (April 19) and created, in collaboration with the engraver Amos Doolittle (1754-1832), four battle scenes. While father Earl joined the Patriots in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) , the son stuck to the loyalists and had to give birth to son John in May 1777 after his wife, who had followed him to New Haven a few months earlier , fled to England in the spring of 1778 .

Gilbert Stuart: Benjamin West (1783/84). Ralph Earl's teacher in England.

General John Burgoyne's Quartermaster General John Morney (1751–1817) helped Earl escape and supported him after his arrival in England - where he settled as a portrait painter until 1785 - by introducing him to potential clients. He also took up his painting studies there with the portrait and history painter Benjamin West (1738-1820) and exhibited for the first time in 1783 at the Royal Academy of Arts . Although his first marriage was not divorced, he married Ann Whiteside (1762-1826) in 1784 or 1785, with whom he returned to America in 1785. From this marriage two more children were born: the daughter Mary Ann (1786-1866) and the son Ralph EW (* 1785 or 1788).

The family led an unsettled life in America, which led them via Boston (1785) to New York - where Ralph Earl served a prison sentence for his debts from September 1786 to January 1788 , during which he continued to portray. He spent the rest of his life doing commissioned work - including landscapes - in various states and locations (Connecticut, Long Island , Vermont , Massachusetts). His most important clients at the time were the Boardman and Tayler families in Milford, who were related by marriage and for whom he created at least fourteen portraits and a landscape.

Ralph Earl died, eventually separated from his second wife, in 1801 at the age of 50, presumably an alcoholic.

His son Ralph EW Earl (1785 / 88–1838) took up his father's profession and became a successful painter. He married the niece of Andrew Jackson , the 7th  President of the United States . Ralph Earl's nephew Augustus Earle (1793-1838) was also a painter.


Portrait of William Carpenter, 1779

Ralph Earl's work can be divided into three creative phases.

The early work (before 1778) is little known. Most of these works have been lost, others have only been ascribed to Earl, while the six battle scenes have only come down to us through Doolittle's engravings. The earliest of the surviving paintings is the full portrait of the seated Roger Sherman (1775/77). Seated models should favor Earl throughout his career. The work shows, like the portrait of William Carpenter, which was made a little later in England, a cumbersome manner related to naive painting , which gives the work an ancient appearance. This last quality will remain a constant feature of Earl's work, which even the years of apprenticeship in Benjamin West's studio were unable to completely eradicate. The strong contrasts of light and shadow already present in this early portrait, the attention that the artist pays to detail and his ability to grasp the character of the model will also be evident in the later works.

The second creative phase (1778–1785) reflects the progress made by the artist during his seven-year stay in England. His growing artistic skill now allows him to experiment with different formats, to dare to work on more difficult picture compositions and to include interiors or landscapes in the background of his portraits, as in the portrait of Lady Willam with her child or that of Master Rees Goring Thomas . At the same time, the strict contours give way to a more supple, eye-pleasing painting style, which is also characterized by a more refined use of color , for example in the full portrait of General Gabriel Christie .

After his return to the United States (1785), Earl gave much more space to the possessions of his wealthy clients in his paintings. He portrays them in their lands in front of their manor houses, inside their houses, in their libraries or lavishly furnished salons, with many of the objects depicted in the latter alluding to and underlining the professional and social position of the model. In doing so, he always keeps a clear view and bluntly captures the character of his clients and their pride in the acquired goods, whose views they can capture in sometimes very large-format works for posterity.

Selection of works

  • 1775/77: Roger Sherman , New Haven (Connecticut), Yale University Art Gallery .
  • 1779: William Carpenter , Worcester (Massachusetts) , Art Museum
  • 1783: Lady Williams and Child , oil on canvas, 128 × 101 cm, USA, New York City, Metropolitan Museum of Art .
  • 1783/84: Master Rees Goring-Thomas , oil on canvas, 167.6 × 121 cm, New York City, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • 1784: Dr. Joseph Trumbull , oil on canvas, 76.5 × 63.5 cm
  • 1784: General Gabriel Christie , Kansas City (Missouri) , Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art .
  • 1784: Hunter with rifle and two dogs , canvas, 221 × 168 cm, Worcester (Massachusetts), Art Museum.
  • 1786: Baron von Steuben (Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben), canvas, 124 × 105 cm, New Haven (Connecticut), Yale University Art Gallery.
  • 1787: Mrs. Alexander Hamilton (Elizabeth Shuyler), oil on canvas, 80.7 × 68.3 cm, New York City, The Museum of the City of New York
  • 1789: Daniel Boardman , oil on canvas, 207.4 x 140.4 cm, Washington, DC , National Gallery of Art .
  • 1789: Elijah Boardman , oil on canvas, 211 × 130 cm, Plainfield (New Jersey) , CB Tyler collection.
  • 1789: Esther Boardman , oil on canvas, 108 × 81.63 cm, New York City, Metropolitain Museum of Art
  • 1790: Colonel William Taylor , oil on canvas, 123 × 97 cm, New York City, Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
  • 1791: Marinus Willett , oil on canvas, New York City, Metropolitain Museum of Art
  • 1791: Mrs. William Moseley with her son Charles , canvas, 220 × 174 cm, New Haven (Connecticut), Yale University Art Gallery
  • 1792: William Floyd , oil
  • 1792: John Phelps (the elder)
  • 1792: Chief Justice and Mrs. Oliver Ellsworth , Hardford, Wadsworth Atheneum
  • 1798 (circa): Gershom Burr , canvas, 91 × 84 cm, New York City, collection FH Lassiter.
  • 1798: Mrs. Gershom Burr , canvas, 91 × 84 cm, New York City, Collection WK Herrick.
  • ???: Oliver and Abigail Wolcott Ellsworth , after 1784



  • Wayne Craven: Colonial American Portriture . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1986
  • Pliny Earle: The Earle Family: Ralph Earle and his descendants . Press of Charles Hamilton, Worcester MA 1888
  • Laurenc B. Goodrich: Ralph Earl, Recorder for an Era . State University of New York, New York 1967, ISBN 0-87395-020-8 , books.google.de
  • Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser: Ralph Earl: The Face of the Young Republic . Yale University Press, New Haven 1991
  • Earle, Ralph . In: Encyclopædia Britannica . 11th edition. tape 8 : Demijohn - Edward . London 1910, p. 796 (English, full text [ Wikisource ]).

Web links

Commons : Ralph Earl  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. James Earl (1761-1796). Artist Biography at worcesterart.org
  2. Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Artist Biography at worcesterart.org was the primary source for this article.
  3. Jean-Philippe Breuille (ed.): Dictionnaire de la peinture anglaise et américaine . Larousse, Paris 1991, ISBN 2-03-740065-9 , p. 93
  4. Ralph Earl (1751-1801) at worcesterart.org