Encyclopedia of American Folk Art

By Gerard C.Wertkin; Lee Kogan | Go to book overview

E

EARL, RALPH (1751-1801)

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 leading Revolutionary War patriots in New Haven, including his early masterwork, Roger Sherman (1775-1776). Earl also collaborated with his New Haven colleague, the engraver Amos Doolittle, to produce sketches for four engravings of the 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord, which would become among the first historical prints to 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 Academy exhibitions.

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 confined to 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 Distressed Debtors, 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 convinced the 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 highly gifted 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. Earl deliberately 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. In 1798 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

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Encyclopedia of American Folk Art
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Entries vii
  • Introduction xxvii
  • A 1
  • B 35
  • Bibliography 75
  • C 79
  • Bibliography 107
  • Bibliography 111
  • D 113
  • Bibliography 144
  • E 145
  • Bibliography 153
  • F 161
  • Bibliography 166
  • Bibliography 171
  • G 189
  • Bibliography 203
  • Bibliography 210
  • H 217
  • Bibliography 225
  • Bibliography 235
  • I 247
  • Bibliography 249
  • J 251
  • K 269
  • Bibliography 273
  • L 279
  • M 293
  • Bibliography 309
  • Bibliography 311
  • N 337
  • O 349
  • P 355
  • Bibliography 388
  • Q 411
  • R 421
  • Bibliography 433
  • S 447
  • Bibliography 450
  • Bibliography 472
  • Bibliography 484
  • Bibliography 490
  • Bibliography 494
  • Bibliography 496
  • T 509
  • U 527
  • V 529
  • W 539
  • Bibliography 540
  • Bibliography 546
  • Bibliography 556
  • Y 561
  • Index 569
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